The IF Summit Peaks

Monday 14 March 2011, 12:39 am   //////  

I had a great time showing Curveship, and explaining the motivation behind it, at the IF Summit next to PAX-East today. And it was generally a great weekend of catching up with the people who are continually discussing this system (and many other matters) with me online. My thanks particularly to Zarf, the main organizer of the IF suite, Dave, who set up us the conference room, and Emily, who ran the IF Demo Fair on Saturday night. And generally, hooray for interactive fiction and the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction – I hope we have many other productive gatherings in years to come.

The People’s Republic of IF is Shiny

Monday 7 March 2011, 10:50 pm   ////  

As if polishing a statue of our glorious leader, the Web secretariat of the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction has hoisted a fine new website. It has everything the old site had, but shiner and more expandable – which is important for a Cambridge-based group with a destiny that is manifest, a group that continues to share IF with the Boston area and the world.

Please do note that PR-IF will be at PAX-East 2011 with a suite and a conference room. All events are open to the public and do not require a PAX-East badge. I’ll hope to see some of you there.

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.

Choose from 1 Ending to this Blog Post

Sunday 20 February 2011, 6:38 pm   /////  

There’s a nice Slate article on the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure series, quoting not only both of the main COYA authors but also Zork creator and Infocom implementor David Lebling.

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.

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.

Here’s the Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 2

Wednesday 9 February 2011, 4:30 pm   //////////  

Thanks to the hard work of the editorial collective, Laura Borràs, Talan Memmott, Rita Raley, and Brian Kim Stefans, and to contributions of more than 70 (often collaborating) authors, we now have an incredible new anthology: volume 2 of the Electronic Literature Collection, which offers 60 new reading experiences for the networked computer.

(Here’s the ELO’s announcement about the new volume.)

To make the first volume of the Collection possible, my fellow editors and I limited ourselves to the sort of e-lit projects we could easily publish on CD-ROM and on the Web. The formal range of the ELC has expanded in the new collection, which documents several projects that wouldn’t, themselves, fit on disc. The range of languages represented has also widened, and the collective has brought it own perspectives and concepts to offer a different sort of selection than is seen in the first volume.

I’m certainly pleased to have some of my work included: Book and Volume and the first program in the ppg256 series. And I’m glad that Laura, Talan, Rita, and Brian worked so carefully and at such length to gather and edit this diversity of material. They’ve made this project a success for the ELO and for e-lit readers. And finally, as a reader, I’m also really looking forward to diving into the pages and windows of this collection.

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 curveship.com.

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

Today’s Curveship Koan

Wednesday 5 January 2011, 3:11 pm   ///  
You put yourself on something unseen.
  Then, you are unable to take a look at something because you are not in the world.

Actions in Curveship

Tuesday 7 December 2010, 9:59 pm   ////  

I’ve been working the past few days to change the way actions are represented in Curveship. The previous model for actions is described well in sections 5.1.3 and 5.1.4 of my dissertation. I won’t go into it in any detail here, but it involved two sorts of abstractions (one higher-level and associated with intention and narrating, the other lower-level and used directly in the simulation) and was considerably more complex than what I have in the current system.

I will mention something about why actions are represented in the system at all – that is, with first-order representations, objects. This is a departure from the way IF systems have worked up to now. In other IF systems, when you “get lamp,” you change the state of the world. The lamp object has a different parent when you are done with this action. But there is no object representing the action itself, the adventurer getting the lamp. As you can tell from playing IF, this works fine if you want to stick to one character and narrate what is happening exactly once, as it happens.

Having a representation of action, on the other hand, allows for much more flexibility in narrating. One can narrate an action in flashback (because it’s still there, represented as an object) and can easily maintain lists of actions for each character, to represent what each specific character is aware of. In Curveship, these are kept in “concepts” which are theories about the world that are almost always incomplete and can even be wrong. Since all actions are reversible, the representation of actions also provides an infinite “undo” capability.

So, the action representation now simply provides actions of four types:

  • Behave – Any action that doesn’t change the world, from speaking to jumping up and down.
  • Configure – An action that causes an item to be moved to a new place, or to be in a new relation, in the item tree. (“get lamp” is an example.)
  • Modify – An action that causes an item to change state, to have one of its features take on a new value. (“light lamp” is an example.)
  • Sense – A perception of the world which does not change the world but may update a character’s concept.

For instance, this is the code that maps the command “get lamp” (or “get” followed by anything) into a particular “take” action, which is a configure action:

def take(agent, tokens, concept):     return Configure('take', agent,                      template='[agent/s] [pick/v] [direct/o] up',                      direct=tokens[1], new=('of', agent))

“take” is the verb and agent the agent; all Actions must have these two. The template is optional. It specifies the string-with-slots that is to be used in representing this action. All configure actions have a direct object, the item being configured, and need at least a “new” keyword specifying the link and parent that item will be in. Here, it’s “of” (indicating possession) and the agent (the one who is doing the taking.)

Book Fest Podcasts

Wednesday 17 November 2010, 8:12 pm   //////  

Audio podcasts of the events at the Boston Book Festival are now online – along with some videos. Whether you were one of the 25,000 attendees or not, you can catch some of the 2010 festival via the Web. The panel that I was on, “The Novel: A Prognosis,” can be heard right here.

1 Days without Injury in Keyhole Factory

Thursday 11 November 2010, 10:26 am   ////  

My collaborator and publisher William Gillespie has a new book, Keyhole Factory, and has done a vigorous interview about it which I suggest you read.

Lebling Lurks, Zarf is Kickstarted

Monday 1 November 2010, 7:47 pm   ///  

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.

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

Friday 15 October 2010, 5:14 pm   ////////  

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

Thursday 14 October 2010, 9:33 pm   //////  

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!

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