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.
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.
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.
You may have noticed a slew of posts on the Get Lamp blog, Taking Inventory, or seen the writeups on Boing Boing, PC Gamer, CNET, or other sites. But I’ll say it here too: Jason Scott’s documentary about text adventures, years in the making, is completed, has been pressed and assembled, and is now for sale and shipping. The movie is Get Lamp, and there is a trailer for it online.
Tipped off by my book Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction, Jason Scott got in touch with me way back in 2005, before he had started filming interviews for Get Lamp. He came to Philadelphia, where I was working on my Ph.D. at Penn. I ended up doing one of several interviews with him there and bringing him to Autostart, a digital literature festival I helped organize at the Kelly Writers House, where he interviewed a few of the participants – just a handful of the many dozens of interviews Scott did for the documentary. I’ve gotten to see the documentary develop. I listened to audio files of the interviews, discussed the project on ifMUD, and got to see screenings of early versions with audiences at the Penny Arcade Expo East and @party.
Get Lamp is an essential film for the interactive fiction enthusiast – as I think more or less all of us know already. It’s also going to be an important film for students of electronic literature or computing history. There are some good short YouTube videos explaining interactive fiction, such as Exploring Interactive Fiction, which I did with Talieh Rohani, and Jason McIntosh’s The Gameshelf #8: Modern Interactive Fiction. These are great for people whose interest has been piqued already and who want to know a bit more about IF history and how to play. But it’s really difficult to get contemporary, non-IF playing students to understand why they should give interactive fiction a chance. Those who put a few short games on a syllabus often return to classrooms of perplexed or disgruntled people who have made no progress. Screening at least the “non-interactive” cut of Get Lamp will be time well spent. It will provide ideas for discussion and will give students permission to appreciate interactive fiction in several new ways, allowing them to better engage with assigned games.
It’s people and their stories that are always the focus of a documentary, and that’s certainly the case with Get Lamp, which assembles quips, and the occasional longer argument or rant, from players and authors of different eras. The statements from people in the film give a great sense of the many ways in which interactive fiction was and is important. This is something you don’t get in Twisty Little Passages, because my method wasn’t to interview people about their experiences; I focused more on the printed and digital record, on describing how interactive fiction works, and on scholarly questions about the status and history of the form, for instance, as it relates to the literary riddle. While people are central to the documentary, Scott certainly doesn’t shy away from archival materials such as printouts, maps, and notes or from original early packages in the documentary, though. He uses those worth-a-thousand-words pictures to give a sense of the contexts in which interactive fiction has been played from the early days of Adventure through today. Which I guess means, as everyone’s favorite retail site says, “Buy these items together!” (Actually, though, you should go to the Get Lamp order page to buy the documentary.)
Scott has done a great deal to provide coverage of today’s “modern era” of interactive fiction development while also covering its origins in Adventure, the ties that game has to caving, and the commercial heyday from Adventure International through Infocom. The history of the IF Comp is explained by current organizer Stephen Granade and others, and the emergence of short-form IF (and its relationship to the comp) is discussed as well. But the documentary’s perspective on interactive fiction clearly gazes longingly over the “golden age” of commercial IF, when Infocom was king. There’s the sense – which several people share – that interactive fiction has managed to continue in some ways from that time, which was its finest hour.
That’s not the perspective some contemporary IF authors have, though. For some, Infocom is a happy but dim memory rather than the holy city of Byzantium. Others never even played an Infocom game before playing modern IF and writing their own IF. And of course, games are not just shorter now; they are written in a wider variety of styles on a wider variety of topics. It won’t be tough for enthusiasts to find other favorite aspects of IF which didn’t manage to fit into this full and rich documentary: the relationship to MUDs or the graphical adventure, commercial games in English outside the US, or global communities working on IF in recent years. Which is just to note that while Get Lamp relates an important and untold story, it’s not the _only_ story of interactive fiction. It’s the kind of movie that leaves me listening to my fellow IF authors and aficionados and being constantly surprised about how much I share certain people’s perspectives and how different, at other times, my view of IF is. That’s not just informative; it’s also thought-provoking.
Yes, despite the breadth and unusual textures of the topic, the film goes beyond being a great introduction to IF and the people who play and write it. There are many surprising discussions outside the main line of IF history. The academic study of IF is discussed by Mary Ann Buckles, whose 1985 dissertation on Adventure is the first study of IF and probably the first long example of work in game studies. John Romero explains the debt that computer games in general owe to text adventures. Robert Pinsky, who has served as poet laureate in addition to writing the IF Mindwheel, discusses puzzles and the pleasures of literature. Other less-than-usual suspects chime in, including fellow academics and collaborators of mine Jeremy Douglass, Ian Bogost, and Stuart Moulthrop.
One of my favorite points in the movie is when Brian Moriarty says empathetically of the Infocom catalog, “It was for literate people – it was for people who like to read!” Get Lamp is also for people who like to read, explore, and see from different perspectives. It’s not only for those who have already discovered interactive fiction, but it will delight most those who are enthusiastic about computing and what the computer can do with storytelling, language, and the modeling of words.
Jason Scott is now preparing for a “Jet Lamp” tour in September, in which he’ll show the film around the country. Perhaps you’ll get to catch it at a theater near you.
Jason McIntosh at The Gameshelf has just posted a great 10-minute video introducing interactive fiction, with specific discussion of some good games to begin playing. I’m there offering some unconventional ideas about why it’s interesting for those new to IF to start off by playing complex, difficult games.
##### The blog edition of my presentation at the Electronic Literature Organization’s ELO_AI Conference, Brown University, 5 June 2010
The process of writing and programming the first two full-scale interactive fiction pieces in the new system I have been developing, Curveship, has been a part of my poetic practice that I have found interesting and has also been a useful activity from several perspectives. Here I focus on the project _Adventure in Style_. I will also mention _The Marble Index_, a project that contrasts with _Adventure in Style_ in an important way. These two pieces, still in progress, are initial explorations of the potential of Curveship and of the automation of narrative variation. My hope has been that these two games will serve as provocative interactive experiences, whether or not those who interact with them are interested in Curveship as a research project or as a development system. Of course, it will be very useful if they also serve as demonstrations of how Curveship works. I have, additionally, used these two projects to help me determine what additional development is critical before I release Curveship.
While Curveship has functioned as a research system for several years and has been previously discussed from the standpoints of computer science, artificial intelligence, and narrative theory, this is my first attempt to discuss the specific pieces of interactive fiction that were conceived as aesthetic projects, rather than primarily for research or demonstration purposes.
The system used to implement these pieces, Curveship, is an interactive fiction development system that provides a computational model of a physical world, as do existing state-of-the-art systems such as Inform and TADS. Curveship does something significant that other systems do not: It allows author/programmers to write programs that manipulate the telling of the story (the way actions are represented and items are described) as easily as the state of this simulated world can now be changed. It has been straightforward to simulate a character and to have that character move around and change the state of the world. In addition to this, Curveship provides for control over the _narrator_, who can speak as if present at the events or as if looking back on them; who can tell events out of order, creating flashbacks or narrating what happens by category; and who can focalize any character to relate the story from the perspective of that character’s knowledge and perceptions.
Curveship is a Python framework which will run on any computer that runs Python; I intend to release it under a free software license when it the core aspects of it are complete, well-tested, and well-documented. Rather than repeat what is already online about the system, I’ll just mention here that information about Curveship is available in several papers and in my 2007 dissertation. The best place to begin reading about the system is [my blog, _Post Position_](http://nickm.com/post/tag/curveship/), where papers and my dissertation are linked. My blog posts use the same (simplified) terminology as does the code; these terms (such as “spin” to refer to the specification for narrating) are the current, official ones. Some of my earlier publications, although they represent many aspects of Curveship well, use out-of-date terms.
#### _The Marble Index_
_The Marble Index_ simulates the experiences of a woman who, strangely disjointed in time and reality, finds herself visiting ordinary moments in the late twentieth century; the narration accentuates this character’s disorientation and contributes to the literary effect of incidents. So far, only a few sketches of parts of _The Marble Index_ have been done. In _The Marble Index_, the narrative style is controlled by the interactive fiction program. I am not very far along on this project, but I mention it because I anticipate that, just as the interactive fiction programs takes care of simulating the world in current IF, the program will usually take care of modifying the narrative style in a less direct way. _The Marble Index_ will probably be more representative of how the narrating will be controlled in a “typical” Curveship piece.
#### _Adventure in Style_
_Adventure in Style_ is in part a port of the first interactive fiction, the 1976 _Adventure_ by Will Crowther and Don Woods – one which adds parametric variations in style that are inspired by Raymond Queneau’s _Exercises in Style_ (_Exercises de style_, 1947). For several years, I have been beginning my presentations about Curveship by showing that the goal of the project is to combine _Adventure_ and _Exercises in Style_, because the two pieces show what is essential and compelling about interactive fiction (simulating a storyworld with a text interface) and about narrative variation. Now, in working on a creative project which is supposed to be effective as a stand-alone piece, not only as a demo, I am trying to combine these two much more literally.
In _Adventure in Style_, the player can rather directly control the narrative style by commanding the player character to manipulate an in-game object. The critical object here is the lamp, which the adventurer almost always needs to be holding in the cave. A special case, in which the player chooses to use the standard style throughout an entire traversal, gives the player an experience much like that of running the original _Adventure_ program. The fictional work of _Adventure in Style_ is almost complete, with the cave laid out as in _Adventure_ and many of the treasures and other objects implemented. Although the fiction file has not been fully tested, the map of and most of the puzzles in _Adventure_ are in place. Several of the possible variations in style, but not all the ones that are planned, have been implemented as well.
Several of my interests flow together, and then underground, in _Adventure in Style_. It is a port, and during my investigation of the Atari VCS (Atari 2600) with Ian Bogost as we worked on _Racing the Beam_, I found that ports are fascinating because they involve thinking about the essential aspects of a game and how they can be expressed in different ways across different platforms. When played in the standard narrative mode, one can see that _Adventure in Style_, in reimplementing a previous game, aspires to the unoriginality of Kenneth Goldsmith’s practice of uncreative writing, in which a writer simply transcribes or retypes text, such as a year’s worth of radio weather reports or a particular issue of _The New York Times_. Since narrative variation, the only aspect of the project that doesn’t come from _Adventure_, comes from _Exercises in Style_, _Adventure in Style_ is thoroughly uncreative: neither the original game nor the concept of variation sprang from my fictive forehead. Nevertheless, or perhaps because I have avoided trying to make any real contribution of my own, I find that these two great tastes taste great together. They serve as a way to understand the computer’s power to control the telling of a story and to model an underlying story world.
#### Grue Street
I took _Adventure in Style_ to the first meeting of Grue Street, an interactive fiction writers’ group that I started in Cambridge, Massachusetts as an offshoot of the local IF organization, The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction. (In the tradition of Infocom’s _The New Zork Times_, we named the group to riff on a local writing center, “Grub Street.” Hopefully this organization won’t follow the lead of the Grey Lady and threaten us with a lawsuit.) Grue Street got off to a good start with six games and seven authors – one game was a collaboration. We required each attendee to bring something playable to the meeting, a “situation” of some sort:
> “Situation” can mean something like a puzzle, task, or conversation, which may take place in one room (or scene) or in several. The term is meant to be pretty open; it’s mainly to encourage authors to have more than just an empty setting (with nothing to do in it) or a lone character or collection of objects (with no reason to interact). You don’t need to have your whole game completed or even sketched out to participate.
The writers interacted with each piece as a group. On the one hand, this left each of us with only one transcript of play to study, but, on the other, it gave authors the opportunity to hear players thinking out loud and talking with each other.
I didn’t come away from the meeting with any ideas for major revisions to _Adventure in Style_, but the group’s reaction did help me think about frame the game, creating a useful welcome message, and choosing a good variation to introduce initially. It also made me realize that it will be hard for some people to see the project as anything more than a demo of Curveship.
#### Three Goals
My work on Curveship has been directed toward three major goals:
1. To advance and support research in natural language generation, narratology, computational creativity, and related fields.
2. To create a functional IF development system that allows authors to create games for players.
3. To enable new, compelling literary and aesthetic experiences.
“Shimmer,” advertised during the first season of _Saturday Night Live_, was a substance designed to be both a floor wax and a dessert topping. To update this for the 21st century, we might image a substance that is a floor wax, a dessert topping, and a hand sanitizer. While the three goals of Curveship do work together in certain ways, in other ways they make the research, development, and creative project seem a bit like “Shimmer Plus.”
An IF development system needs a reliable way for players to download games and probably for them to play games online, and, among other things, it needs a start-of-the-art parser. These are useful for goal 3 but unnecessary for goal 1. Generally, goal 1 and goal 3 involve pushing the envelope in some ways that are similar and some ways that are different, while goal 2 requires stability, documentation, and ease of use.
There are projects that have taken on two major and distinct goals at once. _Façade_ by Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern was an attempt to create a highly distributable, playable, and enjoyable experience that also advanced the state of the art of interactive drama. It was not itself a platform or development system, however. Graham Nelson’s co-development of Inform and _Curses_ involved creating a literary work and the now-dominant IF development system, but Inform (which has since been developed in very intriguing new directions) was not initially focused on expanding the possibilities of IF. Daniel Howe’s RiTa and Ben Fry and Casey Reas’s Processing have been developed first and foremost as general platforms, but have contributed along other lines. Nevertheless, projects that strive toward all three of these goals are rare.
I will be re-opening activity on Curveship this summer and would be glad to hear from people interested in using the system, as this will help me focus my efforts and create a release that works for the community interested in the system’s capabilities.
Emily Short wrote an intriguing post about the parser in IF – actually, somewhat against the parser in IF. She explores alternatives to what she calls the “command line” in IF (not entirely inaccurate, but not the connection I’d most want to make) and ends up finding it to be more or less the worst of all systems except all the others, like democracy. The post has already garnered about 50 comments. In it, Short writes:
We have a two-part accessibility problem. One part is the interpreter: people don’t want to download separate files and don’t want to have to figure out file formats … The other problem is the parser.
I see a few problems with this. First off, let’s not stop at two. The world model that IF presents (with “rooms,” containment, light sources, and so on) is hardly accessible or immediately obvious. I think it works fairly well and creates a good abstraction of world that is suitable for text-based interaction. I think the world model of IF is a strength of the form, a success. But you still have to learn it. Figuring out the layout of an IF world is perhaps easier for new players in 2010 than it was in 1976, but there are certainly challenges to accessibility today in this aspect of IF.
The discussion in this post of the natural-language interface of IF and its supposed failings is what really seems to me to fall short:
Fundamentally, however, we’ve got a bigger problem, which is that the command prompt is a lie. It tells the player “type something, and I’ll understand you.” Which it won’t.
All interfaces are lies, in this case. If I click on my desktop, or on a blank area of the menu bar, it does nothing – or, you could say, it “doesn’t understand me.” If Mario is up against a wall, pushing the joystick (or d-pad) in the direction of the wall does nothing. There are plenty of ways to get almost any computer interface to not give you results, if you don’t learn how it works. You always have to learn something about how to use the interface to be able to control the computer program that uses it.
The parser, which asks “What do you (the detective) want to do now?” is making an offer: Tell me a simple action, usually a physical one such as PICK UP AX, and I’ll instruct the player character to do that. Yes, we have abbreviated way to indicate these actions: “east” or even “e” to mean “walk east,” “inventory” to mean “look at what I’m holding,” and so on. But I see the overall framework of interaction as being clear enough for players to learn, even if there are some issues for newcomers to IF.
I find Aaron Reed’s work hypertextualizing IF and allowing for other sorts of inputs to be intriguing, but I’m not compelled to go in this direction myself. I’m pleased with the textual exchange between player and computer and the basic framework in which the player is invited, consistently, to give a character an action to carry out. In the service of making things accessible, efforts to extend the parser to understand things such as “herring” are moves away from consistency. They may work in some ways, but they make this sacrifice.
Similarly, I disagree that it would be a good idea to have (as Short proposes) “a system where the player could select a noun, see what he could do with it, and select one of those options.” I actually wouldn’t particularly want this, any more than I’d want to be able to say “TURN LEFT!” to my car and have that override the steering wheel. It makes sense for a programmer to be able to determine an object’s methods, but the experience of IF for me is not mainly about programming; instead, it’s about directing a character through a world, often one that is strange. Using langauge, and specifically, a reasonably negotiated subset of a natural language like English, seems suitable for this.
I have to note in closing something that I find a bit amusing: As Inform 7 is taking a programming language for interactive fiction in a radically more natural-language direction, Short is arguing for an IF interface that is less like natural language.
Short has provided a prototype as part of her discussion, which I admire and wish I could do. Maybe after I finish Curveship…
The Electronic Literature Organization‘s conference at Brown University has new concluded – the workshops, performances, screenings, exhibits, and sessions all went very well, as did the coffee breaks and other times for informal conversation. Many thanks to the organizer of ELO_AI (Archive & Innovate), John Cayley!
The conference was a celebration of and for Robert Coover, co-founder of the Electronic Literature Organization and major American novelist, whose teaching and promotion of electronic literature has been essential to the field. Robert Coover was toasted and at least lightly roasted, heard papers presented on his work, and did a reading of the “recently renovated Hypertext Hotel” – a famous early project by students which did indeed turn out to have some recent renovations.
ELO_AI began on Thursday with an array of workshops by Damon Loren Baker, John Cayley, Jeremy Douglass, Daniel Howe, and Deena Larsen. Deena Larsen was later part of a great roundtable on archiving with Will Hansen, Marjorie Luesebrink, and Stephanie Strickland; the group discussed Duke University’s work with Stephanie Strickland’s papers (and digital works), the Deena Larsen Collection at the University of Maryland, and the efforts that the ELO made in the Preservation, Archiving, and Dissemination project. On the first day of the conference, Mark Marino organized a great panel with four undergraduate presenters. And, there was an opening reception at the Westminster Street gallery where an excellent show of digital literary work has been put together. While there was an array of work (in the screenings, performances, gallery, and sessions) from people who were presenting at an ELO conference for the first time, I was also glad to see many of the people who were instrumental in creating and publishing literary work on the computer more than a decade ago.
Without trying to enumerate every session of the conference, I’ll mention the Sunday 10am plenary to try to get across how wide-ranging the presentations and presenters were. In this session, George Landow, author of the famous Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (1992), told the tragicomical tale of hypertext’s use in education at Brown. Angela Chang and Peggy Chi described two interactive projects for very young readers, projects that used my Curveship system and the Open Mind Common Sense project from Henry Lieberman’s MIT Media Lab group. Lawrence Giffin used the not-very-democratic framework of the salon to consider the important avant-garde site Ubuweb. And finally, Paola Pizzichini and Mauro Carassai looked into the Italian edition of Michael Joyce’s Afternoon and its almost total absence from Italian libraries. Certainly, some sessions were more focused – very focused in the case of the one on William Poundstone’s digital writing work; at least with a theme of process intensity, in the case of the session were I presented my work on Adventure in Style. But we had a genuinely diverse group of presenters, and sessions like this one on Sunday revealed this, while also showing that we do have cross-cutting interests and that we can have valuable conversations.
A special area if interest for me, interactive fiction, was represented by Aaron Reed, who did a reading of his Blue Lacuna in which he deftly showed both interactive sessions and the underlying Inform 7 code while a volunteer interactor spoke commands. Aaron Reed also gave a paper on that large-scale piece, explaining his concept of interface and his work on developing a non-player character who ranged across different spaces without being a simple opponent or companion character. In the same performance session and paper session, I got to see and learn more about Fox Harrell’s Living Liberia Fabric, a piece produced in affiliation with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Liberia, incorporating video testimony, and employing Fox Harrell’s GRIOT system for poetic conceptual blending.
We welcomed new ELO board members and officers. Joining the ELO board are Fox Harrell, Caroly Guertin, and Jason Nelson. Dene Grigar took office as vice president, and Joe Tabbi completed his term as president, handing that role over to me.
During the sessions, we heard critical perspectives on many particular electronic literature work and some on the ELO itself, which will help us think about the challenges the Organization faces and how we can better serve readers and writers beyond American universities. The ELO has had ten years of growth and learning by now, and while there will be more of each to do, our four main projects are now well enough established that all of them are past 1.0:
- The Electronic Literature Collection, the second volume of which has been edited and produced by an independent editorial collective and will be published soon.
- The Electronic Literature Directory, which in its new manifestation offers community-written descriptions as well as metadata.
- Our conference – this most recent one at Brown was our fourth international gathering.
- Our site and our online communications, which offer information about the ELO and an introduction to electronic literature.
I’m glad to be starting my service as president of the ELO at a time when the organization has just had a very successful conference and has these other effective projects rolling. Thanks to Joe Tabbi and other past presidents and directors of the Organization for bringing us to this point – and, again, to John Cayley for bringing us all together at Brown.
Mary Dooms, a middle school teacher in Illinois who has used interactive fiction in her teaching, recently asked me if I knew about any uses of IF in teaching in higher education. That’s a good question.
She had found Utah State’s Voices of Spoon River and Myth Mechanic. I know right off that Jeff Howard has taught The Crying of Lot 49 using IF, and that students read IF and create it as a digital literary practice in two of my classes, Interactive Narrative and The Word Made Digital.
I’ve certainly heard of many other uses of IF in education, and when I can, I’ll begin to collect and list those. Rather than wait, I thought I’d call for links from Post Position/Grand Text Auto readers, since I know there are many classroom deployments of IF that I’m not aware of. If they have well-packaged downloads like the Utah State projects, that’s particularly nice, but I imagine that other information about the classroom use of IF would also be helpful. Any ideas?
Hello from the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction.
The TWIF Comp, a contest for interactive fiction with code of 140 characters or less, recently wrapped up. (We’re playing some of the games at the PR-IF meeting today.) Although it certainly had its in-joke aspects, the competition did bear amusing fruit, and it’s only one example of several recent competitions beyond the traditional big annual IF Comp. Given my interest in tiny literary systems, I certainly gave some thought to entering this one. However, I’ve pledged to spend all of my IF-writing time working on or in Curveship, and 140-character programs in the system weren’t at the top of my to-do list.
Before the TWIF Comp, there was the Jay Is Games interactive fiction competition, and after it there is the Second Annual MetaFilter Interactive Fiction Contest, which just started on Saturday. Those who read German will be delighted to know, if they don’t already, that the Grand Prix 2010 has just concluded. There’s also going to be an interactive fiction competition (for 30-minute-playtime games) at the Massachusetts demoparty @party. (Information will be posted on the site soon.) And Introcomp is gearing up: Interested parties should indicate their intention to enter by the end of the month. In case you’re new to online competitions, comps, or “compos” as they are sometimes called, these are not furious masculinist agons; they are mainly excuses for people to complete games and have them played by a bunch of people.
At the very least, you IF-interested parties should take a look at the games being proffered in recent contests – or, see if you want your IF to be part of one of these occasions.
Jason Scott, the filmmaker behind the soon-to-be-released interactive fiction documentary, has posted video of the Get Lamp panel at PAX-East. He’s also put up an MP3 with just the audio. The panelists are Dave Lebling, Don Woods, Brian Moriarty, Andrew Plotkin, your very own Nick Montfort, Steve Meretzky, and Jason Scott.
This weekend was a great time, both at the official PAX-East, where we saw the premiere of Get Lamp, and in the alternate but connected universe of the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction Hospitality Suite, where Andrew Plotkin’s organizational acumen and contributions allowed us to hear panels, write and play Speed IF games, and snack and converse. The 2010 IF Summit at PAX-East was a great success. There and at the main expo, I got to speak with people from the contemporary IF community and many old-school IF luminaries from Infocom and before – and even got to be on a panel with several of them.
And, I got to play on the proto-Ms. Pac Man board – the one Crazy Otto board that is known to still exist.
After PAX, I hosted a great reading of interactive fiction by Emily Short (who read from Alabaster) and Jeremy Freese (Violet), with interacting done by Kevin Jackson-Mead and Jenni Poladni. The event was at MIT (as with all Purple Blurb presentations), had standing room only, and prompted a great deal of good conversation afterwards.
There is much more that could be said, and many more PAX-East IF people that I could mention – a few of those, beyond the PR-IF regulars, are: Sam Kabo Ashwell, Liza Daly, Brendan Desilets, Stephen Granade, Juhana Leinonen, Jacqueline Lott, Jesse McGrew, Carl Muckenhoupt, Aaron Reed, Dan Schmidt, Robb Sherwin, Dan Shiovitz, Emily Short, and Rob Wheeler. (My apologies to those whose names I’m overlooking or don’t have on hand.) Some of these are locals I rarely see; others are people I have known for years, had numerous extensive discussions with, and in one case, collaborated with, and yet PAX-East was my first chance to meet them in person.
Based on last weekend and last Monday, the outlook for IF is extremely bright: We can share games and discuss important questions about IF in person as well as online, we have plenty of ideas that we’re making progress on but can certainly discuss further, and we have a documentary film coming on DVD that will please IF diehards and help to introduce students and other sympathetic viewers to the pleasures of the text adventure.
I recently went from presenting at the prestigious and vibrant University of North Dakota Writers Conference to being on a panel at the massive Penny Arcade Expo in Boston.
First things first: The former was “Mind the Gap: Print, New Media, Art,” the 41st UND Writers Conference. Last year at UND the presenters included Charles Baxter and Chuck Klosterman; the year before, Russel Banks, my colleague Junot Díaz, Alice Fulton, and Salman Rushdie.
To provide some perspective, back in 1978 the lineup at this conference was John Ashbery, Amiri Baraka, William Burroughs, Ring Lardner, Tillie Olsen, and Eudora Welty.
This year I heard Art Spiegelman in conversation about his comic and New Yorker cover art, Frank X. Walker on his poems giving voice to the journey of York (who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their expedition as Clark’s slave), Cecelia Condit on her video art, and three of my fellow electronic literature writers, with their diverse approaches: Mark Amerika, Deena Larsen, and Stuart Moulthrop. I had to leave before I could hear slam poet Saul Williams, but I’m grateful for what I was able to experience of the conference. And I’m grateful that I was able to be on two panels, select a reel of music videos for the associated film festival, speak to a computer science class, and present several collaborative and individual projects to a sizable audience in the main room of UND’s student union:
- Ad Verbum, my interactive fiction piece from 2000, inspired by the constrained writing of the Oulipo. Thanks again to the young interactor who volunteered to try collecting items in and escaping from the Sloppy Salon.
- 2002: A Palindrome Story, by Nick Montfort and William Gillespie. I showed the Reifier interface and read from the very beginning and end.
- Implementation by Nick Montfort and Scott Rettberg. I explained the project and read eight texts (stickers, mailing labels) from it.
- Currency, by Roderick Coover (video) and Nick Montfort (text). I showed “Filip a Guinea: The Elephant and Castle.”
- Taroko Gorge, the poetry generator I wrote in Taiwan.
- My ongoing series of tiny perl poetry generators, ppg256.
The people in Grand Forks, ND were polite (I was told I shouldn’t be surprised about this) but also surprisingly receptive. It was certainly a different sort of crowd than I met at Banff, with many people from the community and even driving in from surrounding areas. I think they saw some of the pleasure in writing under constraint, some of the benefits of writing collaboratively, and some of the potential of computation, which I tried to show could be turned to literary ends.
Although I got to converse with Stuart and Deena on and off our panels, I came in too late for one of their readings and had to leave before I could hear the other one. I did get to hear Mark Amerika take us from his early writing in The Kafka Chronicles up through his Web work and recent moving image project, all of which are fresh and impressive. His video work is certainly impelled ahead by the work of Chris Marker, whose Sans Soleil Mark selected for the film festival. I should note that I also loved getting to watch Timecode, Stuart Moulthrop’s selection.
Thanks again to Crystal Alberts for inviting me and for her work on this very successful conference.
When I can manage, I’ll write a bit about the very different but also incredible Penny Arcade Expo East…
A last-minute reminder for you local Post Position readers: Emily Short and Jeremy Freese are reading from their interactive fiction work today in MIT’s room 14E-310 at 5:30pm. Hope to see you there!
This weekend, I’m attending LibrePlanet, the Free Software Foundation’s conference and hackfest here in Cambridge. I don’t have anything to present or hack upon at this one, but I’ll be listening and learning more about free software and software freedom.
On Tuesday, I head to Grand Forks, ND for the University of North Dakota Writers Conference: Mind the Gap – Print, New Media, Art. The featured authors and artists this year are:
- Art Spiegelman
- Frank X. Walker
- Nick Montfort
- Cecelia Condit
- Saul Williams
- Mark Amerika
- Stuart Moulthrop
- Deena Larsen
- Kanser with More Than Lights
I’ll return on Friday and head straight to the Penny Arcade Expo East (PAX East) in Boston, where the confluence of about 60,000 gamers is expected. At 9:30pm on Friday is the world premiere of Jason Scott’s interactive fiction documentary Get Lamp. Afterwards is a panel with:
- Dave Lebling (Zork, Starcross, The Lurking Horror)
- Steve Meretzky (Planetfall, Hitchhiker’s, A Mind Forever Voyaging)
- Nick Montfort (included in this august group for writing a book about this stuff)
- Brian Moriarty (Wishbringer, Trinity, Beyond Zork)
- Andrew Plotkin (Spider and Web, Shade, Dual Transform)
- Don Woods (co-author with Will Crowther of the canonical first IF, Adventure)
And then, on Monday, March 29, at 5:30pm in MIT’s room 14E-310, I’ll host a reading in the Purple Blurb series. Emily Short (author of many award-winning interactive fiction pieces, including the recent Alabaster) and Jeremy Freese (winner of last year’s IF Comp for his Violet) will present and read from their work.
I hope to see some of you here in the Boston/Cambridge area or, perhaps, in Grand Forks!
Proceedings of the Digital Arts and Culture Conference, 2009 are now online. The conference was a great success; DAC continued to lead the way in the culturally engaged study of digital art and media. Many thanks go to Simon Penny, who was director of the conference, and others at UIC: Ward Smith, Liz Losh, and Sean Voisen. The theme leaders for this conference put together very strong series of papers that were both focused and relevant. I hope those of you who didn’t make it to Irvine will visit the proceedings and see a bit of what happened at the latest instance of this extraordinarily rich series of gatherings, where the study of video games, digital art, digital literature, performance, and the cultural aspects of online and computing experience have been explored so well over the years.
I’m delighted to announce our Spring 2010 Purple Blurb events:
Roderick Coover & Nitin Sawhney
Monday, March 1
Monday, March 8
Jeremy Freese & Emily Short
Monday, March 29
John Cayley & Daniel C. Howe
Wednesday, April 28
All events are in MIT’s 14E-310.
Note that the first three events begin earlier (5:30pm) than in semesters past, while the final event this semester begins later (7:30pm).
Please also note (or recall) that 14E is the east wing of Building 14, the building which also houses the Hayden Library. This is *not* building E14, the new Media Lab building.
Canyonlands (www.unknownterritories.org) is a film and interactive documentary about the works of the novelist and essayist, Edward Abbey (1927-1989). Abbey worked as a seasonal ranger and forest lookout in Western parks and forest-lands, wrote in praise of wilderness, and called attention to the destruction of the desert landscape. His descriptions of eco-sabotage in his novel The Monkey Gang were an inspiration for the formation of the environmentalist organizations such as EarthFirst! Canyonlands takes users into a virtual representation of the Colorado River and Utah canyonlands. There, users will follow Abbey’s road and fascinating side routes as they weave their way through history.
Roderick Coover makes panoramic interactive environments, collaborative streaming visual poems, and multimedia documentary projects about histories, narratives, and the sense of place. Some titles include Unknown Territories (Unknownterritories.org), Cultures in Webs (Eastgate Systems), From Verite to Virtual (D.E.R), The Theory of Time Here (Video Data Bank), The Language of Wine (RLCP), and Something That Happened Only Once (RLCP) among others. An associate professor of film and media arts at Temple University, Roderick Coover has received awards from USIS-Fulbight, a LEF Foundation, and the Mellon Foundation, among others. URL: http://www.roderickcoover.com
Strawberries, Roosters and the Chocolate Seas is an upcoming feature-length documentary. It is a personal journey into the heart of Gaza using a satirical and poetic rendering of everyday life and the extraordinary events witnessed by the filmmaker, during his visit there one year after the devastating 22-day siege in January 2009. The film, shot during two intense weeks in January 2010, includes interviews with fishermen, farmers, physicians, teachers, and working professionals, interspersed with footage that captures dramatic events like the large convoys of aid arriving in Gaza despite the blockade, tunnels used to smuggle goods, hip hop bands striving for creative expression, and the floods that turned Gaza’s seashore from deep blue to chocolate.
Nitin Sawhney is a research fellow in the Program in Art, Culture and Technology in the Department of Architecture at MIT. He co-founded the Voices Beyond Walls initiative for digital storytelling in Palestinian refugee camps. The program was founded in 2006, when pilot digital media and storytelling workshops were first conducted in the Balata and Jenin refugee camps in the West Bank. Since then local and international volunteers have conducted nearly a dozen workshops in six different refugee camps. See: http://www.voicesbeyondwalls.org Sawhney was selected as a Visionary Fellow with the Jerusalem 2050 Program: http://envisioningpeace.org/visions/media-barrios He has recently returned from a trip to Gaza and is sharing footage from a documentary he is co-producing: http://www.GazaRoosterFilms.com
Strickland will read from four collaborative digital poems created over the past twelve years, each of which uses the screen differently: V: Vniverse, Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot, Errand Upon Which We Came, and slippingglimpse.
Stephanie Strickland is a print and hypermedia poet who, in addition to having written the digital poems mentioned above, has published five books: Zone : Zero, V: WaveSon.nets / Losing L’una, True North, The Red Virgin: A Poem Of Simone Weil, and Give the Body Back.
Violet is an interactive short story about romance and procrastination in which the main character is struggling to complete his dissertation. The things that happen in the simulated graduate student office are narrated to the player by the (imaginary) voice of the main character’s Australian girlfriend. Violet won several XYZZY awards in 2008, including the award for Best Game, and was the winner of the 2008 Interactive Fiction Competition.
Jeremy Freese is a professor in the Department of Sociology, School of Communication, and Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.
Alabaster is a fractured fairy tale by John Cater, Rob Dubbin, Eric Eve, Elizabeth Heller, Jayzee, Kazuki Mishima, Sarah Morayati, Mark Musante, Emily Short, Adam Thornton, and Ziv Wities, illustrated by Daniel Allington-Krzysztofiak. This interactive fiction is an experiment in open authorship. The introduction to the story was written and released by Short in 2008. The game is implemented in Inform 7 using a conversation system, developed by Short, that will be released for general use by Inform 7 developers. There are eighteen possible endings to Alabaster.
Emily Short is author of or collaborator on more than two dozen interactive fictions, including Galatea (winner of Best of Show in the 2000 IF Art Show) and Savoir Faire (XYZZY Award for Best Game and in other categories, 2002) and Floatpoint (winner of the 2006 IF Competition) along with other XYZZY award-winning games: Metamorphoses (2000), Pytho’s Mask (2001), City of Secrets (2003), and Mystery House Possessed (2005). Short, who is a classicist and a scholar of attic drama, has worked on the development of Inform 7, has reviewed dozens of games, and writes the column “Homer in Silicon” for GameSetWatch.
The Readers Project is a collection of distributed, performative, quasi-autonomous poetic ‘Readers’ — active, procedural entities with distinct reading behaviors and strategies. We release these Readers onto inscribed surfaces that may be explicitly or implicitly, visibly or invisibly, constituted by their texts. Over time, the Readers will address themselves to a wide range of material — from conventional found texts, through poetic reconfigurations of appropriated (fairly-used) sources, to original compositions by the project’s collaborators, and so on.
Designed to support the creation of novel works of digital literature, Howe’s RiTa library, in which The Readers Project is implemented, provides a unique set of tools for artists and writers working in programmable media. Combining features of natural language processing, computational stylistics, and generative systems, RiTa enables a range of tasks, from statistical methods, to grammar-based generation, to linguistic database access (e.g., WordNet), to text-mining, to text-to-speech, to image, audio, & animation, all in real-time. RiTa is free and open-source and integrates with the popular Processing environment for digital arts programming.
John Cayley writes digital media, particularly in the domain of poetry and poetics. Recent and ongoing projects include The Readers Project with Daniel Howe, imposition with Giles Perring, riverIsland, and what we will. Information on these and other works may be consulted at http://programmatology.shadoof.net. Cayley is a visiting professor at Brown University, Literary Arts Program.
DANIEL C. HOWE
Daniel C. Howe is a digital artist and researcher whose work explores the intersections of literature, computation, and procedural art practice. He recently received his PhD (on generative literary systems) from the Media Research Lab at NYU and was awarded a ‘Computing Innovations’ fellowship from the National Science Foundation for 2010. He currently resides in Providence, RI where he teaches at Brown and RISD, and is a resident artist at AS220. His site: http://mrl.nyu.edu/~dhowe/