Guardian Hails IF, Novelists

Keith Stuart’s provocative article in The Guardian plugs modern-day interactive fiction and suggests that novelists should be more involved in the making of video games, as they have been in the past. The article is on the right track. There is certainly reason for video game companies to license, or, less frequently, collaborate with those who make movies. But there are lots of things that games can do, and novelists could bring interesting perspectives, skills, and art to games – even they aren’t text-based interactive fiction. Of course, the right match has to be made and the writer has to be persuaded that video games are serious enough. I suggest Ubisoft grab Paul Auster, a dizzying writer. If he didn’t mind the association that come with writing and co-directing the movie Smoke, video games should be no problem.

Thanks to Emily Short for noticing this one.


Poemland, Chelsey Minnis, Wave Books, 2009
Poemland, Chelsey Minnis, Wave Books, 2009

Minnis, confronting poetry, hurls a fruit salad. The pages of the eleven sections of this book have only a few lines each, most ending in ellipses. The images (“getting hit with a folding chair / And being held by your braids…”) accumulate and converse (“I’ll chop your head off! / And I’ll carry it around by the hair…”), commenting on various vague situations and on poetry (“It’s like trying to drink a bottle of champagne in a roadside bathroom…”) You might imagine that it’s boring to hear poets yammer about writing poems and being poets (“If you open your mouth to start to complain I will fill it with whipped cream…”). Not so. Via references to fashion and offbeat interpersonal statements, the lines of Poemland connect the concerns of our poetry subculture (poverty, recognition, originality, connection to the past, authenticity) to culture more broadly. The book is fun to read from line to line, too (“With this book I have made a very expensive joke…”) and is beautifully and aptly designed.

CALC-09, Afternoon

The Workshop on Computational Approaches to Linguistic Creativity has just concluded. I posted about the morning; here are my notes on the afternoon talks.

The first item for the afternoon was my invited talk, “Curveship: An Interactive Fiction System for Interactive Narrating” I worked a while to provide the paper to accompany my talk, trying to introduce IF, explain the basics of narrative variation, and get into at least some of the technical details of my system, including the string-with-slots representation, which I’ve been working on a great deal recently. I also tried to include handy references and pointers. Incidentally, I’ve been meaning to post more about Curveship, and I’d love to hear any questions you have about it at this point, even before I’ve properly introduced the system on this blog.

After my talk, we had more time for poster presentation; one poster was on author and character goals for story generation.

The “From Morphology to Pragmatics to Text” session concluded the day:

Andrew Goldberg presented work by three others on a ML algorithm to assess the creativity of sentences: outliers that are still meaningful. The Winconsin Creative Writing dataset was assembled and used. Using language modeling, word norms, and WordNet, the did partially predicted creativity scores. (Pointed out in the Q&A: All the non-creative sentences were much shorter, so you could just use one feature – length!)

Stefano Vegnaduzzo presented state-of-the-art work on complex adjectives – ones that are made of at least two words separated by a hyphen. These are frequent, as corpus analysis of Wikipedia and the Web shows. Two-word complex adjectives, identified with a part-of-speech tagger, were the focus. Morphological productive processes allow the unintentional, unlimited, regular creation of words; building complex adjectives is one. Checking for hapax legomena gives a measure of productivity within morphological categories: “non-X” was tops in both corpora. Realized and potential productivity were found, and found to be similar across corpora.

Allan Ramsay presented work on how the same words can have different meanings in different contexts. The sentence “I’m sorry I missed your talk” was one fixed text, along with “I’m sorry, Dave, I can’t do that.” It’s not because “sorry” is ambiguous. “Sorry” expresses a relationship between an individual and a state of affairs (which the individual wishes were not the case). There’s no first-order representation. The representation is extremely elaborate, but not too complex. Appropriate background knowledge is essential. One conclusion: A system that takes part in conversations will have to build meaning representations and carry out inference. (In Q&A, I learned that there’s more in the paper about being mistaken, lying, and using irony and sarcasm.)

One way to get at the papers from this workshop is by seeing the title and author information on the CALC-09 site and then using your favorite search engine to locate them online – I assume all, or at least almost all, have been placed online by authors. ACL also offers past workshop proceedings for purchase. Maybe the CALC-09 proceedings will be available that way, too?

CALC-09, Morning

The Workshop on Computational Approaches to Linguistic Creativity (CALC-09) is taking place now at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

In the first session on metaphors and eggcorns, researchers reported on using natural language understanding techniques in innovative ways:

Beata Beigman Klebanov presented on the use of a topic model (LDA, latent Dirichlet allocation) to detect the most obvious or deliberate types of metaphor, which are discussions of one domain the terms of another and which were annotated by people in this experiment. For different k, metaphorical uses were found to be less frequent in the k most topical words in the discourse overall.

Steven Bethard presented work dealing with sentence-level conceptual metaphors from a psycholinguistic standpoint. In earlier work, metaphors were used as stimuli and subjects’ N400 brain waves, associated with anomaly, were recorded. This suggests that it’s important to know about metaphorical frequency, how often words are used in a metaphorical way. A support vector machine classifier was trained on an annotated corpus. LDA, with and without categories, was used to disambiguate metaphors, and to determine whether they are abstract or concrete.

Sravana Reddy presented “Understanding Eggcorns,” about linguistic errors caused by semantic reanalysis: entrée -> ontray, as first named on Language Log in 2003. Eggcorns are more related to folk etymology and puns than malapropism; there has been little study. Can the path of transformation be discerned? Error-detection is an application; also, humor generation. Using the Eggcorn Database and WordNet, a semantic network was built; context information was then added and other augmentations were made. A typology with five categories was developed based on the results.

Session 2 was on generating creative texts:

Ethel Ong presented work on pun generation using a pronouncing dictionary, WordNet, and (more effectively) ConceptNet. A system called TPEG extracted word relaltionships to build templates for pun generation, keeping the syntactical relationship but modeling semantic and phonetic word relationships as described in Kim Binstead’s work. Variables in the template model parts of speech, sound, and compound words.

Yael Netzer presented the Gaiku system for haiku generation. Constructed a haiku corpus, system to build templates. First try generated grammatical output, but didn’t have a good “story.” Story is a sequence of concepts: Butterfly, spring, flower. Word association information, not found in WordNet, was added. An analysis of haiku was done to see if it appears more associate than news text. The final generated haiku were evaluated in a “Turing test.”

Lyric generation in Tamil and syntactic constructions were discussed in the poster session presentations.

Note that paper titles and the full list of author names can be found on the CALC page.

Well Played

Well Played 1.0: Video Game, Value and Meaning is now out from ETC Press. It’s available in print from and has been offered to the creative commons and can be downloaded as a PDF or read on the Web.

My contribution is “Portal of Ivory, Passage of Horn,” an article comparing two of the top games of 2007. Thanks to everyone who discussed this comparison with me at Grand Text Auto when I first blogged about this pair of games. My article is, I think, both more extensive and more focused than what I originally wrote, and I hope it helps to advance the discussion of video games.

Editor Drew Davidson writes of the book:

Well Played

What makes a game good? or bad? or better?

Video games can be “well played” in two senses. On the one hand, well played is to games as well read is to books. On the other hand, well played as in well done.

This book is full of in-depth close readings of video games that parse out the various meanings to be found in the experience of playing a game. 22 contributors (developers, scholars, reviewers and bloggers) look at video games through both senses of “well played.”

The goal is to help develop and define a literacy of games as well as a sense of their value as an experience. Video games are a complex medium that merits careful interpretation and insightful analysis.

Well Played Table of Contents

New Media Art

New Media Art, Mark Tribe and Reena Jana, Taschen, 2006
New Media Art, Mark Tribe and Reena Jana, Taschen, 2006

Here’s a nice slice of recent digital art – online, in performance, and installed – expertly introduced. The book is well-illustrated (no surprise from this publisher) and has a welcome emphasis on the computational. Sure, some of the purest pieces of software art (Galloway’s fork bomb, obfuscated code, and the like) aren’t mentioned, but port scanning, packet sniffing, and the glitchy transformation of HTML are all represented. As with all Basic Genre Series books, there’s an introduction followed by page spreads, each on a single work. The format has its pros and cons, but the results, in this case, certainly offer a nice adjunct to Christiane Paul’s similarly introductory book, Digital Art. The engagement of artists with social issues, the critique of technology, video gaming, and free software are particularly evident in New Media Art. And, how great that Super Mario Clouds and the work of Jodi now sit on the shelf beside books on abstract expressionism, Greek art, and the still life.

Miss America

Miss America, Catherine Wagner, Fence Books, 2001.
Miss America, Catherine Wagner, Fence Books, 2001.

If I was President,
I’m afraid I can’t think without licky
White man wrote almost every book in that shelf.

Wagner takes an exquisite sledgehammer to language and America in this book. The Magazine Poems (for Nature, Time, Social Text, etc.) and the White Man Poems (the second of which supplies the lines above) are particularly effective projects, often scatologically smeared, with phrases turned until they are permanently damaged or become protolinguistic babble. The voices nevertheless seem spot-on as they speak to intimate as well as cultural matters. The five-line poem for Cosmo ends “Horrif, horrif, she howled – Horrif.” Seems like Mistah Kurtz – he is so dead. “A Poem for Good Housekeeping (after Wittgenstein)” is in a rather different vein, rising into a biting, cool abstraction and living up to the outrageousness of its title. The concluding Fraction Anthems, procedurally pulverized further in notes to each, have fine moments as well.

Pablo Gervás to Speak at MIT

Next week, the Purple Blurb series offers a special talk by a leading European researcher in creative text generation.

Pablo Gervás (center) keeps his head above water.
Pablo Gervás (center) keeps his head above water.

Pablo Gervás works as associate professor (profesor titular de universidad) at the Departamento de Ingeniería del Software e Inteligencia Artificial, Facultad de Informática, Universidad Complutense de Madrid. He is the director of the NIL research group and also of the Instituto de Tecnología del Conocimiento.

His research is on processing natural language input, generating natural language output, building resources for related tasks, and generating stories. In the area of creative text generation, he has done work on automatically generating metaphors, formal poetry, and short films.

He will speak on Wednesday May 20, 6pm-7pm, at MIT in room 14E-310. The talk is (as with all Purple Blurb presentations) open to the public, and (as with all Purple Blurb presentations so far) will be in English.

Guru Meditation

Ian's Bogost new game Guru Meditation, also available for iPhone.
Ian's Bogost new game Guru Meditation, also available for iPhone.

Ian Bogost has just released his new game Guru Meditation for two platforms: Atari VCS and iPhone. Yes, really. The game is a reimplementation – a reimagining – of an in-house game created at Amiga, the developers of the Wii Fit’s granddaddy, the Joyboard. The iPhone game is 99¢; the object d’atari, which includes a console, Joyboard controller, yoga mat, and cartridge, is sure to be a bit more dear. (The price is available upon request.) But if it’s the only thing in the world that will lead you to your center … why not?


Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames, Mia Consalvo, The MIT Press, 2007
Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames, Mia Consalvo, The MIT Press, 2007.

Two main methodologies are used in Cheating to understand how and why people cheat at video games. The first is the analysis of how print publications and devices surrounding games (Nintendo Power, strategy guides, the Game Genie, and the like) help to shape our concept of these games, providing the axes along which they can be evaluated and how they should be played. Next, Consalvo interviews gamers and explores an MMO to find out what players consider cheating and what boundaries they draw as they play. What results is some real insight into single-player and multiplayer cheating and into various corporate, industrial, and legal perspectives as well as those of individual players. The book does not work toward a single definition of cheating; rather, it shows how players and game-makers are actively negotiating what’s fair and what isn’t, working to allow the enjoyment of the game, to map or adapt “real-life” ethics into the magic circle, and to build the gaming equivalent of cultural capital.

Children of Arcadia

Children of Arcadia, Mark Skwarek and Joseph Hocking, CAC Gallery, April 24-May 15 2009. Part of the Boston Cyberarts Festival.

In Cambridge’s City Hall Annex, Children of Arcadia provides a wide vista onto a virtual world as well as a station for interacting. A visitor can guide a female character to different parts of the landscape. The pastoral scene, with the ruins of Wall Street buildings scattered about, features weather and other atmospheric effects that are keyed to current financial conditions. Plummeting stock prices seem to manifest themselves in darkness, rain, and billowing columns of smoke. Bullish markets would lead to sun and clear skies. Steering an avatar through this world could be more enjoyable. It seems that the character can’t affect anything or interact with other wanderers. Still, the view of the landscape and the connection to real-time data makes for a powerful, relevant image and works well in the installation context. The economic crisis is found “in arcadia” here, where the helplessness of the steerable characters is at least appropriate.


At long last, this is a discussion – a review, of sorts – of Violet, an interactive fiction piece by Jeremy Freese. It isn’t the sort of review that tells you whether or not you should go play the game. Violet is an excellent game, and if you’ve been waiting on my recommendation, spongemuffin, you’ve been silly. It won the 2008 IF Comp along with four XYZZY awards, including Best Game. Go play it if you haven’t. If you have, read on for my mildly spoilery but hopefully incisive comments.


As you know if you’re reading the text in this box, Violet is a game in which you try to defeat distraction and work on your dissertation. The things that happen in the simulated world are narrated to you by the (imaginary) voice of your Australian girlfriend, Violet. While Violet won the XYZZY award for Best NPC, she isn’t an NPC, at least, any more than Lord Flathead is an NPC in Zork. She’s a narrator, and her narration is both lively for its own sake (filled with hilarious and diverse pet names) and suggestive of a relationship that is meaningful and interestingly textured. For a game with no NPCs at all (in the simulation itself), there is a lot of information being provided about other characters: The PC’s ex, Julia, and the “dork” she is talking to, the zombie horde visible through the window, the former occupant of the office, and of course our erstwhile narrator, Violet. The game shows how other characters can meaningfully manifest themselves even when they don’t do anything in terms of picking up objects, manipulating the state of the world, or serving as an explicit opponent (as the Thief did in Zork) or helper (as Floyd does in Planetfall).

This delights me; Violet is the second IF Comp winner in a row that features very unusual and effective narration. The whole point of my in-development IF system, Curveship, is allow for even more radical and general types of wacky narration. Violet shows that you can do something powerful already, just as hypertext allows you to model and manipulate space, with effort. If there were facilities for narrating provided – the way that there are facilities in IF for modeling objects, containers, action, and so on – it seems to me that significantly more could be done along these lines.

Violet demonstrates that it’s more interesting if the game’s replies vary and have some texture, as one would expect when reading a novel or poem. Even if the difference is just in a pet name, it’s a lot better than nothing, and provides some pleasure to the player. Of course, there’s much more in Violet that amuses: The tone of polite refusals to do certain actions and the recollections of a pleasant relationship and a brilliant personality, all mentioned at suitable moments during the course of ordinary actions.

The characters (again, none of which are simulated) are certainly great elements of Violet. The overall situation is also an interesting one: The PC has to get rid of, rather than acquire, objects, and shut out distraction to focus on a task. There’s the trial that the PC go though, the degradation that goes along with that, and the fitting ending in which the day’s accomplishment reveals a different course of life. The narrative as well as the narration works well.

If there’s anything that’s a bit awkward in Violet, it’s the puzzles themselves. Manipulating objects reveals things about the main relationship in the story, which is nice, but it doesn’t seem to fit into the scheme of the world as powerfully as quotidian actions do in Shade, for instance. There’s a lot of trial and error and mechanical manipulation (of projectiles, of one’s head) that is required. In the end, it’s neither an indication that a profound riddle has been solved or a powerful, revelatory gesture – it’s just showing you the extreme, absurd ends that you shouldn’t be going to.

That’s a minor criticism, though, particularly given the good hint system that is included in the game. And it doesn’t stop the the narrated characters, the overarching situation of the day, and the concluding twist from having their effect. Most of all, Violet shows that brilliant narration can be done in a comp game and can be done in a very different way than Lost Pig did it, and that, in a different way, the joys of reading can work together with those of game playing.

Video Games Tending To Zero

I’ve been interested in testing the lower limits of digital objects, looking at how simple and minimal something can be while still being understood as falling into a fairly familiar category. My ppg256 series, which consists of 256-character Perl poetry generators, is in this vein, as are my attempts at very small stories and poems in forms, “Ten Mobile Texts.” In the realm of sound, Tristan Perich’s One-Bit Music and Shifty’s One-Bit Groovebox are somewhat similar projects that attempt to show that if you bring eight bits, you aren’t bringing eight bits too few – you’re bringing seven too many.

It’s also possible to wonder what the smallest possible video game is, or how to push video games toward minimality. First, let’s take a step back to see what the smallest possible game of any sort might be: The Game, in which one simply tries to avoid thinking of The Game, and, if one does think of the game, one loses. This one’s interesting because it can’t be won. Neither can Space Invaders, of course, but The Game is different: a player can’t even be conscious of playing without losing.

Somewhat akin to ppg256 and The Game is Jason McIntosh’s obfuscated (or at least very compressed) game, a 494-character Perl program in which you plunge down a canyon, inflecting yourself left and right to try to avoid hitting the walls of a canyon, which slant and are unseen until the last moment. is made of a very small amount of code, but there are plenty of games with less – Pong, for instance, is simply a circuit and doesn’t have any code. One thing I find interesting about and pleasing in some minimal games is the highly abstract nature of the visuals, something also seen in Pong. This Perl game actually has many of Pong‘s luxuries as well, including multiple lives and a report of your score at the end of the game.

Players wait for the next lightning strike in Ian Bogosts Thunderstorm.
Players wait for the next lightning strike in Ian Bogost's Thunderstorm.

Although made up of a whole 1024 bytes each – of assembly – Ian Bogost’s game poems for the Atari VCS incline toward minimality. The most recent entry, Thunderstorm, is a game about watching a thunderstorm and guessing, after a flash of lightning, how long it will take for thunder to sound. Simple as it is, this game uses audio as well as video channels, features color (although rarely), supports two-player competition, and is winnable.

As it has in music, physical computing has weighed in on minimal video gaming. Rob Seward’s three-person Tag is played on a 5×7 LED grid and has been hailed as “the simplest video game in the world.” Interestingly, Clive Thompson goes on to note that Seward’s game Boo is even simpler, with a single light bulb for a display. One player lights the bulb and the other attempts to hit a button as soon as possible afterwards.

There are some things that all of these games have in common: Something surprising happens in all of them, and that surprising thing is critical to the gameplay. Randomness provides the surprise in and Thunderstorm. The players provide it in Tag and Boo. A representational excuse (you’re falling into a canyon, we’re watching a storm, got you!) can be used, but it’s the unexpected, not the connection to reality, that makes these games work. And there’s just one last thing to note: I think that surprise even plays an important role in The Game. Ouch … I just lost The Game.

Have You Played Atari Today?

<i>Asteroids, Tempest 2000, Pitfall!</i> (for Intellivision!), <i>Air-Sea Battle,</i> and <i>Yars' Revenge</i> set up and waiting for players in the Trope Tank.
Asteroids, Tempest 2000, Pitfall! (for Intellivision!), Air-Sea Battle, and Yars' Revenge set up and waiting for players in the Trope Tank.

I have been wanting to have some sort of end-of-year fest, however small-scale and short-notice, and I was also looking for an excuse to unpack and reconfigure my office (a.k.a. the Trope Tank) after hauling much of my video game stuff back from the Boston Cyberarts Festival. So I decided to invite some MIT folks over, including CMS and GAMBIT game-players. Excuses to celebrate included this here new blog, Racing the Beam (not so new, but still a good excuse for a party), and MIT’s recent decision to promote and tenure me. I was very pleased to host a contingent from the Literature department, some CMS students and staff, and the person who has kindly loaned me that fine Asteroids cabinet, Jason Scott. There was an emphasis on the Atari VCS at the event. Players battled at Joust (and contemplated the symbology and implications of the game), played Space Invaders as a team, found Barnstorming simple but serene, figured out Yars’ Revenge, grooved with Tempest 2000 on the Jaguar, and failed to beat Ghosts ‘n Goblins on the NES. (Still, that was a lot better than I can do during an offhand attempt, Josh.) Thanks to all who stopped by.