An Enigmatic Business Card

Monday 9 May 2011, 3:53 pm   /////  

TEch WArp: MIT is out of joint. Find an entry point, a placard, and play Tech Warp on your phone or on the Web. Check: A bookstore in Kendall, A mid-infinite location, A former arcade site, MIT’s main entrance, A corner lot dorm, A student street. Align MIT in time & unlock space for imagining the future.

These cards have been seen at MIT. Some say they point the way to an interactive fiction that you can play, if you search the campus and find a way in.

Why Watson Can’t Dance

Saturday 23 April 2011, 5:07 pm   /////  

Here’s the abstract from a presentation I gave yesterday, from my pedestrian stance as a non-dancer, at a high-energy workshop on dance technology:

Why Watson Can’t Dance: Attempts at On-Screen Dance in Popular Digital Media

Nick Montfort

Dance Technology and Circulations of the Social v2.0, MIT, April 21-23, 2011

Of all the ways that computing can connect to dance, one of the simplest but also most pervasive is seen in the animation of dancing bodies on screen. To inquire about how computers have done this sort of virtual dance over the decades, and how it relates to interactive games that require the player to dance, I begin by considering very simple digital media objects that represent dance. The first is a non-interactive BASIC program from the 1982 Commodore 64 User’s Guide: “Michael’s Dancing Mouse.” Comparing this to a dancing computer animation from the decade after — the dancing baby, which was one of the first viral animations or videos online — is instructive in considering the way digital media developed and whether or not the computing concept of dance developed. I then turn to focus on one game originally for the arcade and one home video game: Konami’s Dance Dance Revolution and Harmonix’s Dance Central. In examining these systems, I try to articulate the model of dance that underlies them and to understand what aspects of dance are foregrounded and which are left aside. Finally, I consider how well the computer can dance (in this one narrow sense of displaying an animated dancing figure) and how this compares to the computer’s ability in other domains, including the other arts.

Some relevant videos:

My Curveship Talk at PAX-East 2011

Monday 28 March 2011, 9:34 am   /////////  

I gave a talk about Curveship in the “IF Suite” (actually an ordinary hotel room with a few upturned beds, not a suite) at PAX-East 2011 earlier this month. It was great to present to fellow IF author/programmers from around the world at this event, which was effectively the second annual Festival of Interactive Fiction. The IF Summit was organized by Andrew Plotkin, a.k.a. Zarf, once again this year. Thanks to Jason McIntosh, there’s pretty good-quality video (very good, considering the ramshackle setup) of the first 22.5 minutes of my talk:

Nick Montfort on Curveship at PAX-East 2011: Watch on Vimeo

The parts where I actually demo the system and discuss how games are written are missing, unfortunately, but my comments do introduce Curveship and its motivation.

Also check out the video documentation of the “Setting as Character” panel with Andrew Plotkin, Rob Wheeler, Stephen Granade, and Dean Tate. (This one took place in the more capacious Alcott Room, which we had on Saturday, March 12 thanks to Dave Cornelson.) Also, there’s video of the panel on “Non-Gamers Gaming,” with Caleb Garner, Tim Crosby, Heather Albano, Sarah Morayati, and Andrew Plotkin.

Improviso is Out

Wednesday 16 March 2011, 11:40 pm   /////  

Jeff Orkin, of Restaurant Game fame, has just launched Improviso, a system that allows players to improvise (online) and make a somewhat corny science fiction film by taking the role of director or lead actor. Orkin developed the system with collaborating students at the Singapore MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. I was pleased to see an early version of the system this summer, and very glad that the project has now blasted off. If you do Windows, download Improviso and see what you can make of it and with it.

March 14 in Philadelphia: Platform Studies, Material Computing, and the Atari VCS

Wednesday 9 March 2011, 6:34 pm   //////  

Platform Studies, Material Computing, and the Atari VCS

Nick Montfort, MIT

A presentation in the
Workshop in the History of Material Texts
University of Pennsylvania – March 14, 2011 – 5:15pm
Van Pelt Library, 2nd Floor

Platform studies is a family of approaches that aim to help us understand the relationship between computational platforms and the creative work that is done on them. At a high level, two realizations are particularly important to platform studies: First, that creative production on the computer, using computation, is culturally relevant; and second, that we can usefully look to the underlying systems and structures that constrain and enable this creative production. In this talk, I will describe how participating in this workshop helped me to engage with the materiality of texts and then of computing, how I initially sought to investigate the relationship between textual studies and computational media, and how, working with my collaborator Ian Bogost, I found a deeper, productive connection between digital media and textual materiality that is based on the concept of the platform. Along the way, I will discuss and use as my main example the Atari VCS (a.k.a. Atari 2600). This famous early cartridge-based game system was the focus of my and Bogost’s 2009 book, Racing The Beam, the first book in the MIT Press series Platform Studies.

The IF Theory Reader Arrives

Tuesday 1 March 2011, 1:47 am   ///////  

Almost a decade after the project began, the IF Theory Reader is finally here, thanks to the hard work of editors Kevin Jackson-Mead and J. Robinson Wheeler. The book has been published by Transcript On Press and has made it out in time for PAX-East, where Kevin’s group The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction will be hosting a hospitality suite.

There are 438 pages in this book, which can be downloaded as a PDF for free or purchased as a paperback for a mere $13.26.

My own contribution, “Toward a Theory of Interactive Fiction,” has a first page which (except for the title of the article) is entirely occupied by a footnote. Perhaps ominously. I did, however, revise the article for the N+1th time, trying to make it a bit more accessible. I began writing this particular piece back when this book project was first being formulated, and am very, very glad to have it officially published after all these years.

The compendium of writing about interactive fiction that we finally have here includes 26 articles – the same number, I should mention, as there are letters of the alphabet:

  • Crimes Against Mimesis – Roger S. G. Sorolla
  • Toward a Theory of Interactive Fiction – Nick Montfort
  • Characterizing, If Not Defining, Interactive Fiction – Andrew Plotkin
  • not that you may remember time: Interactive Fiction, Stream-of-
  • Consciousness Writing, and Free Will – Mark Silcox
  • 2 Brief Dada Angels – Ryan Stevens, writing as Rybread Celsius
  • Object Relations – Graham Nelson
  • IF as Argument – Duncan Stevens
  • The Success of Genre in Interactive Fiction – Neil Yorke-Smith
  • Parser at the Threshold: Lovecraftian Horror in Interactive Fiction – Michael Gentry
  • Distinguishing Between Game Design and Analysis: One View – Gareth Rees
  • Natural Language, Semantic Analysis, and Interactive Fiction – Graham Nelson
  • Afterword: Five Years Later – Graham Nelson
  • Challenges of a Broad Geography – Emily Short
  • Thinking Into the Box: On the Use and Deployment of Puzzles – Jon Ingold
  • PC Personality and Motivations – Duncan Stevens
  • Landscape and Character in IF – Paul O’Brian
  • Hint Development for IF – Lucian Smith
  • Descriptions Constructed – Stephen Granade
  • Mapping the Tale: Scene Description in IF – J. Robinson Wheeler
  • Repetition of Text in Interactive Fiction – Jason Dyer
  • NPC Dialogue Writing – Robb Sherwin
  • NPC Conversation Systems – Emily Short
  • 10 Years of IF: 1994–2004 – Duncan Stevens
  • The Evolution of Short Works: From Sprawling Cave Crawls to Tiny Experiments – Stephen Granade
  • History of Italian IF – Francesco Cordella
  • Racontons une histoire ensemble: History and Characteristics of French IF – Hugo Labrande

Again, congratulations to Kevin and Rob, and thanks to my fellow authors. I’ve read many of these articles before; I’m looking forward to sitting down and reading everything, previously seen and unseen, in this excellent codex.

Get Yer Art, Culture, and Game Studies

Wednesday 23 February 2011, 11:56 pm   //////  

This and That Thought, a Turbulence commission, is a robot riot. (Turn on your sound before beginning!) The new issue of Culture Machine grapples with e-lit and the digital humanities and looks to be made of win. And there’s the happy occasion of a new issue of Game Studies, focused on game reward systems.

Label This One a Failure

It’s tough to write about the ideas that didn’t work out. Sometimes the negative results actually aren’t very interesting, and it’s better not to discuss them. In other cases, it’s impolite to point out other people’s roles – to blame them – and impossible to discuss the failure otherwise. But when a failure is not too big of a deal, possibly instructive to bring up, and as least as much my fault as anyone else’s, that rare opportunity to post about it presents itself.

In 2005, those of us blogging at Grand Text Auto had the idea of starting a “label.” We wanted something that would riff on our blog’s name and serve to showcase larger-scale projects that we did. The idea was that our creative projects would benefit from being associated with each other, just as our blog writing was more lively and had wider reach thanks to the shared context of Grand Text Auto.

After going through our usual best practices process of name development – perhaps, based on experiences like these, I’ll one day start a naming firm – we chose to call the label [auto mata]. With the square brackets and everything, if you want to really give a shout-out, although “Auto Mata” could work if that’s what fits your house style.

I offered to design the logotype. Now, I’m much less likely to start a career in graphic design, and certainly couldn’t drive that auto very far if I did, but I do like to indulge my dilettantish design interests when the opportunity presents itself. This is what I came up with:

Admittedly, it doesn’t exactly slap one in the face.

I don’t think my understated logo was the real problem with [auto mata], though. First Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern’s Façade (July 2005) and then my own Book and Volume (November 2005) were released “under” (perhaps “with” is a better preposition) this label. And that was it. No other “extraordinary e-lit, digital art, and computer games” appeared as [auto mata] releases, which was one big problem. A list of two things isn’t doing that much helpful association or offering people very much to browse. I think if we had kept adding a piece to the [auto mata] catalog every few months, we’d have accumulated a very interesting collection that people would be looking at. We might even encourage the crossing of boundaries between (the stereotypes of) literary work, visual art, and computer games that Grand Text Auto was all about. But we weren’t all regularly doing larger-scale projects that were downloadable. [auto mata] couldn’t really, in any straightforward way, “release” an immense, functional Atari VCS joystick.

Another problem, though, is that [auto mata] was just a list on a Web page. We didn’t build much buzz around [auto mata] itself, or work to promote the label per se as opposed to the two pieces that were released under it. Perhaps this work would have done itself to some extent as our list of publications grew and our offerings drew in people from different communities. But, unfortunately, the work wasn’t done.

Michael, Andrew, and I often mentioned [auto mata] in promoting our pieces. The site is still up. But now it’s 2011, and it’s worth noting that both Façade and Book and Volume have been published again in the fine context of the Electronic Literature Collection, volume 2. Although some “previous publication” information is included for each piece in the Collection, Michael, Andrew, and I all neglected to tell the editors that these two pieces are [auto mata] releases, so that information (provided within the pieces) doesn’t appear on the introduction pages where other bibliographic information is available.

Ah, well. I don’t regret the discussion that led to our developing [auto mata]; nor do I regret the not particularly onerous efforts that we took to get this label launched. In a different situation, such a label might have served not just to catalog work, but as an incentive or rallying point for the Grand Text Auto bloggers in creating work that could be proudly presented alongside other pieces. Perhaps a similar label could still do that for a different group of people.

Gatsby + NES … Abyss Gent?

Tuesday 15 February 2011, 10:25 pm   /////  

If you’re a fan of the ideal (not the reality) of video games that are adapted from literary works, and particularly if you liked Gatz

Do check out The Great Gatsby for NES. Old chap.

Put Another Token in the Jukebox, Baby

Tuesday 15 February 2011, 7:52 pm   //////  

“D.P.O.” is a pretty amazing X-Files episode, featuring not only an arcade, which is central to the episode, but also a Lenscrafters cameo, glimpses of a Jerry-Springer-like show and a music video, a reference to the land art piece Lightning Field, a rural boy pranking cows, Jack Black, and a Playboy centerfold with at least a passing resemblance to Sarah Michelle Gellar.

I particularly like how Mulder picks out the suspect by locating his initials on the high score screen of a Virtua Fighter machine. One thing I’m wondering about the arcade in this episode, though: It has a jukebox, which is rather instrumental (no pun intended) to the way the episode … plays out.

Was it really common for arcades to have jukeboxes? In my recollection, which may be rusty, arcades were noisy enough thanks to the games themselves. I suppose one could have turned the games’ volumes down to let other music be heard, but there weren’t jukeboxes in the arcades I remember, from, say, The Gold Mine up through Le Fun. Did your arcades have other soundtracks, beyond those coming from the cabinets?

Portal Past

Monday 14 February 2011, 3:09 pm   //////  

Truth is often stranger than fiction. Sometimes fiction just exaggerates for effect, of course. In the world of this commercial,

  • Early Macintoshes have a green-on-black, all-caps display.
  • Interactive fiction text goes only 3/5 of the way across the screen.
  • Macs use 5.25″ floppy discs.

These changes were no doubt thoughtfully made to construct the “retro” in a more intense way, allowing for a readable and seemingly old-school display and collaging different aspects of 1980s home computers. This way the green-on-black display and 5.25″ disks can live alongside the iconic presence of the early Mac. Plus, GLaDOS gets to say the multisyllabic word “Macintosh” at the end of the video. The creators of the video surely knew they were doing it wrong but decided to try to construct something more 80s than 80s.

I wonder if they knew they were making a tribute video for Rob Swigart, whose game/novel Portal was released by Activision in 1986 on 5.25″ and 3.25″ disk for Amiga, Macintosh, Commodore 64, Apple II, and PC.

Swigart also contributed to another early entry in the “pseudohacking” genre, the Activision game Hacker, which sported an all-text beginning that looked very much like the on-screen display in the video.

The commercial testifies to our memories of the 1980s by making things up. But there was Portal on 5.25″ disk in 1986. This video documents the Amiga version. Interesting to see that the first commenter on there can’t believe that something like this could crawl out of our memory hole, through the portal from the past.

Pocket Curveship

Thursday 3 February 2011, 11:42 pm   //////  

Curveship running on a tiny computer, the Ben NanoNote.

Curveship runs on the Ben NanoNote, by the way. It could be faster, certainly – I and others will be working on that. But it does run, which is a good start and bodes well for the ability of Curveship games to run on many different platforms.

Happy Chinese New Year.

Curveship 0.5 Released

Happy Groundhog Day. Today, I’m releasing Curveship, my interactive fiction system that models not only the fictional world, but also the narrative discourse. A development version (0.5) of this Python framework is now available for download. You can find the links, along with some description and documentation of the system, at

(Original photos by April King and Postdlf, Wikimedia Commons; they & these modified versions are CC by-sa 3.0.)

On Researching Adventure Games

Monday 4 October 2010, 6:59 pm   //////  

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.

Computing with Your Torch

Thursday 30 September 2010, 6:43 pm   //////  

I just have to mention the 16-bit ALU implemented in the 3D environment of Minecraft, which has been much discussed by now. I’m glad to hear this game is keeping up with Dwarf Fortress. By the way, the particular piece of hardware that has been (virtually) built, on the way to creating a full CPU, is the one described in The Elements of Computing Systems, a book I wrote about on Grand Text Auto back in 2006.

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 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. and 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.

TV Audiences, Here’s Pole Position

Saturday 21 August 2010, 4:32 pm   ////  

Ms. Blue pointed out a great Atari commercial that has been online for a while, but which is particularly appropriate to mention here: A TV ad for Pole Position. (The name of this blog does in fact refer to that game.) A few notes about this amazing TV spot:

  • There’s an amusing jab at corporate executives, people who “stop exciting things from happening.” Even though the makers of the commercial may not have known or cared, this no doubt resonated among programmers at Atari.
  • “Muffy, Buffy, Biff Junior, and I …” Nuff said.
  • The family’s incredible, fun experience begins as they are picked up by the hand of god, which also destroys their car.
  • There’s an amazing, rocking song called Playing Pole Position. Or maybe Playing Poh-oh-oh-ol, oh-oh-ol, ole Position.
  • The ad is for the Atari 5200 version of the game. The original was a 1982 arcade game by Namco, later licensed to Atari; there are ports for the Atari 2600 and many other platforms.
  • Although the billboard in the ad has something on both its front and its back, the Atari 5200 game’s billboards are all blank. The arcade game’s billboards featured one of the first examples of in-game advertising.
  • The ad suggests that four people can play at once, particularly if you’re thinking of today’s racing games (or even Mario Kart), but the Atari 5200 Pole Position, like the arcade game, is for one player only.
  • A few seconds from the end, you can see where they got the idea for the Segway.
« Previous PageNext Page »
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
(c) 2017 Post Position | Barecity theme