Up Above Once Again

Thursday 4 February 2010, 4:48 pm   //////  

I’m back from a nice slice of summer in Sydney, Australia. I spoke at the University of New South Wales when I was there, gave two talks at the Powerhouse Museum in connection with their “The 80s Are Back” exhibit, and was one of the three judges of the Global Game Jam Sydney. The people who participated in that event did some incredible work – congratulations to all. Here’s some video of me, at the Powerhouse Museum, on interactive fiction and on indie and 80s videogames.

Gatz

Saturday 9 January 2010, 11:46 pm   //////  
Gatz, Elevator Repair Service, directed by John Collins, at American Repertory Theater, Cambridge, MA, Jan 7-Feb 7 2010

Gatz, Elevator Repair Service, directed by John Collins, at American Repertory Theater, Cambridge, MA, Jan 7-Feb 7 2010

This play answers the question “what’s six and a half hours long, uses every word of The Great Gatsby as its text, and cannot be staged in New York?” Gatz is an admirable, extreme adaptation. Most of the words are spoken by Scott Shepherd, who reads Nick’s dialogue and his narration. A large cast voices other parts and also puts on effective dumbshows. On the empty space of the stage, a low-rent, aging office makes a second space which then is wittily made into a third, one which includes West Egg and Gatsby’s mansion. The set initially harbors a (broken) computer but is made to connect to the 1920s via windows, a swivel chair, and other elements. Actions are carried out before they are verbally narrated, so that the words sometimes become a sort of comical rimshot, anticipated by the actors; both actions and words get space of their own this way, too. The result, odd as it may seem, is both playful and faithful, capable of satisfying avant-garde theatergoers as well as great books enthusiasts.

A Note on the Word “Zork”

Friday 8 January 2010, 11:46 pm   ///////  

Yes, It’s a Nonsense Word

The lowdown on Zork‘s name, inasmuch as a lowdown has been provided in print, was given by authors Dave Lebling, Marc Blank, and Tim Anderson in 1979 in the article “Zork: A Computerized Fantasy Simulation Game,” Computer 12:4, 51-59 (April 1979):

The first version of Zork appeared in June 1977. Interestingly enough, it was never “announced” or “installed” for use, and the name was chosen because it was a widely used nonsense word, like “foobar.”

This is a clear explanation, but it raises the question of how this particular nonsense word came into wide use at MIT. It seems reasonable to pursue this question, and reasonable that there would be some discernable answer. After all, there’s a whole official document, RFC 3092, explaining the etymology of “foobar.” It could be interesting to know what sort of nonsense word “zork” is, since it’s quite a different thing, with very different resonances, to borrow a “nonsense” term from Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll as opposed to Hugo Ball or Tristan Tzara. “Zork,” of course, doesn’t seem to derive from either humorous English nonsense poetry or Dada; the possibilities for its origins are more complex.

Slouching from “Zorch”?

In the first part of “The History of Zork,” The New Zork Times 4:1 (Winter 1985), Tim Anderson adds to the earlier discussion and suggests a possible derivation for the word:

Zork, by the way, was never really named. “Zork” was a nonsense word floating around; it was usually a verb, as in “zork the fweep,” and may have been derived from “zorch.” (“Zorch” is another nonsense word implying total destruction.) We tended to name our programs with the word “zork” until they were ready to be installed on the system.

“Zorch” is listed in Peter R. Samson’s 1959 “TMRC Dictionary” – the dictionary of the Tech Model Railroad Club, an organization that was important in helping to begin and foster recreational computing. The term meant, at that time, “to attack with an inverse heat sink” – that is, to attack with a heat source – and is explained as “Another of David Sawyer’s sound effects, which I reinterpreted as a colorful variant of ‘scorch.'” It could also be imagined as a variant of “torch” – either way, the application of heat is suggested. This definition is consistent with the sense of “zorch” that Anderson gives, although a bit more specific. It is quite possible that “zork” does derive from “zorch,” as Anderson and others guess, but it is not clear why a word so derived would then be used as a placeholder program name. It’s also at least arguable that “zork” sounds less destructive than “zorch,” as the unintimidating back-formations “scork” and “tork” suggest. If that’s the case, why would a less intense term come to be used when the original term is more intense and very comical? While the “zorch” etymology might be right, it at least seems worthwhile to look to other possibilities.

Textbook Examples

“Zork” occurs occasionally, although rarely, as a proper name in various print sources in the decades leading up to 1977. Google Book Search reveals that some more nonsensical uses occur in some textbook examples in the 1970s. In Introduction to Experimental Psychology by Douglas W. Matheson, Richard Loren Bruce, and Kenneth L. Beauchamp (1970, 2nd. ed 1974) the meaningless “zork” model is introduced as a contrast to a medical model. “Zork” is also used as a fictional place name in Henry F. DeFrancesco’s 1975 Quantitative Analysis Methods for Substantive Analysts. There is some chance that the term was picked up from such a source. Zork explicitly pokes fun at the material nature of textbooks by including a “this space intentionally left blank” joke, which refers to a message sometimes printed on textbook’s blank pages to let readers know that they have not been left blank due to a printing error. Given this, it would be hard to rule out to possibility of the term “zork” coming from a textbook. Of course, the term could have appeared at MIT indirectly, in an example given in a lecture, on a problem set, or on a test, even if a book with the example in it was not assigned as a text. But there is nothing to strongly recommend this etymology, either. And while the former textbook example is clearly the more vivid, it is also much less likely to have been encountered by the Zork authors, [updated January 10] since they were involved with a computer science research group, Dynamic Modeling. MIT does not now have a department named psychology, but Course 9 (now Brain and Cognitive Sciences) was called Psychology from 1960-1985.

A Hastily Thrown-Together Bit of Zork, cover

There has been some speculation – specifically, in this mailing-list thread – that the term “zork” may come to MIT via John Brunner, whose poetry chapbook A Hastily Thrown-Together Bit of Zork was published in 1974. Although the sense of the word as it appears in the title is completely consistent with the MIT meaning of the term, it is not clear that this 24-page pamphlet, published by Square House Books in an edition of 200 (50 numbered and signed), had made it to MIT by the time Zork coalesced, beginning in 1977. Nevertheless, the idea of a science-fictional vector for the term is appealing.

How Brunner Happened upon “Zork”

A Hastily Thrown-Together Bit of Zork, page 2

On the unnumbered second page of A Hastily Thrown-Together Bit of Zork, Brunner notes that “the title resulted from Simon Joukes’s first encounter with a typewriter that didn’t speak Flemish.” According to this history of Dutch and Flemish fandom, Simon Joukes was active in Flemish fandom and was a part of the club Sfan, helping to publish Info-Sfan, which became SF Magazine.

A Belgian typewriter

Here is a Belgian typewriter, manufactured by Olivetti. (This blog post is the source for the image.) The letters are laid out just as they are on a French typewriter, in the AZERTY scheme. As you can see, if you’ve learned to type the word “WORK” on a typewriter like this, and someone then substitutes a British (or US) typewriter without your noticing, and you then try to type that word without looking at the keys, you’ll type “ZORK.” (Since the “W” and “Z” are switched in this layout, the same thing would happen to a British typist who uses to a Belgian typewriter without noticing how the keys are labeled.)

It’s particularly appealing that this etymology makes zork an altered form of, or an alternative to … work.

Another Science-Fiction “Zork”

Brunner’s use of “zork” in the title of his book was not the first appearance of the word in science fiction. The word made an appearance earlier in Lin Carter’s novel The Purloined Planet, published in 1969. It was used in the name of an important character … “Zork Arrgh.”

The Purloined Planet, page 109

It’s likely that Brunner at least glanced at the name of this key character. Lin Carter’s novel was published in a Belmont Double edition with “two complete science fiction novels.” The other was Brunner’s The Evil That Men Do.

The Purloined Planet, cover

While Simon Joukes may have typed out the word “Zork” and directly inspired Brunner’s 1974 title, the word may have rang out to Brunner as interesting and particulaly amusing because of Carter’s earlier use of it.

“Zork” and How She Is Spoke

There is some chance that people at MIT saw Brunner’s slim book of poems, but it seems far from certain. As of this writing, WorldCat lists only four university libraries in the United States that have this limited-edition book. MITSFS, the MIT Science Fiction Society, boasts the world’s largest open-stack library of science fiction and has 83 titles by Brunner in its catalog – but A Hastily Thrown-Together Bit of Zork is not among these. The Evil That Men Do / The Purloined Planet is in the collection, however.

Even when all of these additional leads are considered, it seems there is no strong conclusion to be drawn about the deeper etymology of the name of MIT’s, and Infocom’s, most famous text adventure. “Zork” might have been a corruption or further development of “zorch.” It may have entered the argot because of its use in an amusing curricular example, perhaps thanks to Quantitative Analysis Methods for Substantive Analysts or another textbook that hasn’t yet been ingested into Google Books. Or, science fiction may have been the vector for the word. If it was, though, it seems likely that it made its way into MIT speech not because of Brunner’s book of poems, but thanks to Zork Arrgh, a key character in 1969 novel by Lin Carter, one that was sitting on the shelves at MITSFS.

Perhaps more evidence will come to light, and the origins of the word “zork” as it was used at MIT in the late 1970s will become clear. Or, it may be that the origins of the word are lost forever – obliterated in a nook of a subculture’s linguistic history that has been irreversibly zorched.

Short Video & Interview on Interactive Fiction

Sunday 3 January 2010, 9:17 pm   ///////  

Exploring Interactive FictionTalieh Rohani made a video of about six minutes in which I discuss the basics of interactive fiction and show a few artifacts related to the material history of this form of computer game and digital literature. This video, “Exploring Interactive Fiction,” was made for the recent Jornada de Literatura in Passo Fundo, Brazil, and a subtitled version was screened there. I’m a few months late in putting it on the Tube for anyone else who is interested, but it’s online now.

Also, a short interview with me about interactive fiction and computer games is online at RPG Examiner. Thanks to Michael Tresca for his interest, his questions, and for posting the interview.

Literary Generation at DAC

Late yesterday, I wrapped up my long (and very fun) day at Digital Arts and Culture 2009 in Irvine by presenting my paper “The ppg256 Series of Minimal Poetry Generators” in the late afternoon cognition and creativity panel and then by being a part of the extraordinary DAC Literary Arts Extravaganza, quickly presenting selections that I called “Five Uneasy Pieces:”

  1. “The Purpling,” a prose poem in hypertext
  2. The Marble Index (a work in progress in the interactive fiction system Curveship)
  3. “Taroko Gorge,” a poetry generator originally written in 1k of Python
  4. “The Two,” a 1k Python story generator (on the screen, I premiered the French translation by Serge Bouchardon – links to both coming soon)
  5. “ppg256-2,” one of my 256-character Perl poety generators which my paper discusses

Interactive Fiction Platforms, Strong Bad’s Upgrades

Monday 14 December 2009, 4:35 pm   ///////  

Alex Mitchell just did a great job of presenting the work he and I did on the influence of interactive fiction platforms: “Shaping stories and building worlds on interactive fiction platforms.” We looked at how TADS 2 and Inform 6, which are really extremely similar development systems created to do almost exactly the same things, nevertheless may offer different affordances to IF authors and may influence the way story words (and other aspects of IF) are developed. Check out the full paper if this interests you.

In this panel, which was intriguing overall, I’ll also mention Stephanie Boluk’s fine presentation. She investigated seriality (in a broad sense), melancholy, and the relationship between narrative and database, bringing narratology (among other approaches) to bear on her object of study: Homestar Runner. “Homestar Runner’s far more surreal characters are impossible to locate along any realistic age spectrum. They perform innocence and experience in various degrees, functioning as polysemic signifiers that embrace these contradictory positions – a hybrid condition made possible by their status as cartoons.” Also, a discussion of how Strong Bad’s past computers coming back from the dead resists the dehistoricization of digital media.

IF, Visuality, and Other Bits of DAC

Among the many great presentations here at DAC 2009 at UC Irvine, the paper by Aaron Kashtan, “Because It’s Not There: Verbal Visuality and the Threat of Graphics in Interactive Fiction,” was particularly nice to hear. Aaron discussed my 2000 interactive fiction Ad Verbum, related it to Emily Short’s City of Secrets, and presented a nice argument about how these two engage (differently) with text’s ability to represent the visual. Here’s the abstract:

In this paper I analyze two contemporary works of interactive fiction (IF), Nick Montfort’s Ad Verbum and Emily Short’s City of Secrets, as examples of two contrasting ways in which IF reacts to the perceived threat of computer graphics. In the post-commercial era of IF, graphics represent a factor that, without being acknowledged, has profoundly shaped the development of the medium. Post-graphical works of IF may be distinguished according to how they respond to the threat or promise of graphics. Ad Verbum’s response to graphics is to emphasize the purely textual, and thus anti-graphical and anti-visual, aspects of the medium. The implication is that IF’s closest affinities are not with visual prose but with printed works of procedural textuality, and that IF is a visual medium. By contrast, City of Secrets activates a mode of visuality that depends less on immediate presence than on emotional affect and imaginative participation. Short suggests that IF is a visual medium, but that it differs from graphical video games in that its visuality depends on absence rather than presence.

I was also really impressed by Brett Camper’s discussion of the MSX-inspired “fake 8-bit” game La-Mulana and, on a very different level, the wide-ranging first talk of the conference, by Kate Hayles, which engaged cognition, tools, attention, and evolution.

DAC 2009 has proceedings which were handed out to attendees on CD-ROM and which will be (to some extent?) available. So, while I hope to mention a few more DAC highlights, I won’t aim to summarize talks.

Before & After Media (DAC at UCI)

Ian Bogost and I just gave a talk on platform studies at UC Irvine’s Center for Computer Games and Virtual Worlds. We talked about our book on the Atari VCS, Racing the Beam, and about the platform studies concept more generally. A nice crowd came out on the rainy Friday afternoon and engaged us in some good discussion afterwards. Although we’ve both talked about the book and platform studies in several different places, this was the first talk we’ve given together. I think it worked well, but I guess writing a book together is good preparation.

We’re giving another join talk at Digital Arts and Culture (“After Media”), which starts this evening and then runs for three days of panels (which include scholarly and artists’ talks) and more unlikely presentations in the evenings. Besides my paper with Ian on platform studies misconceptions, I have another co-authored paper with Alex Mitchell on interactive fiction development systems, a “solo” paper on minimal poetry generators (the ppg256 series), and a reading at the DAC Literary Arts Extravaganza. I’m looking forward to seeing a slew of digital media folks and to enjoying the program, the company, and the Southern California environment – even if it keeps raining.

IF Author, Novelist Alan DeNiro

Friday 20 November 2009, 11:14 pm   //////  

That’s an interview with Alan DeNiro now up at Grinding to Valhalla. DeNiro is author of the just-published Total Oblivion, More or Less, in which Minnesota, and then the rest of the US, is invaded by ancient European tribes. DeNiro also wrote and programmed one of the most unusual interactive fiction pieces of recent vintage, Deadline Enchanter. Or perhaps the word is “bizarre.” The game seems to not completely work, in a few different senses of “work,” but I was intrigued with it and found it to be oddly compelling, a refreshing experiment. Hopefully novel-readers will receive a similar wake-up slap from Total Oblivion, and, hopefully DeNiro won’t abandon interactive fiction now that he’s made it to print.

Nickm on His IF and E-Lit

Thursday 19 November 2009, 4:40 pm   ////  

Rachel Miller of Virginia Commonwealth University just interviewed me about my electronic literature work – my digital writing, focusing on my interactive fiction. She asked some very good questions. In return, I asked if she’d let me post the interview here, to which she kindly agreed.

1. Do you have a specific audience you are trying to appeal to with your work? (It may be different audiences depending on the genre.)

Yes, certainly. I even think of specific people who I would like to enjoy particular pieces of work, and that offers very good guidance. I also think of groups of people such as the interactive fiction community, digital poets, and electronic literature authors and scholars.

2. How do you feel about cellphones? Is it me or did I notice a reoccurring theme of cell phones? (Another Hole+Ten Mobile Texts.)

Cell phones are now completely ordinary and ubiquitous, but they’re pretty amazing in terms of being a very recent technology and one that changes the way we speak and experience space. I could say more, but the pieces you mention (along with Book and Volume, which has an anachronistic pager instead of a cell phone but is trying to deal with that technology obliquely) are my more extended attempts to marvel at this communications technology.

3. What advice do you have for people who are new to interactive fiction?

Play it with someone else, whether your IF partner is experienced or not. I don’t think I know anyone who learned the conventions of IF alone – I certainly didn’t. And, solving puzzles together and exploring a world together is great fun.

4. Why do you support IF? What are the benefits of further development and it being considered a genre in literature?

I see IF as a fascinating point of intersection between literary writing, computer gaming, and the power of the computer to simulate. I’ve always loved what language can do and what computing can do, and I see that this comes together in a powerful way in IF. Of course, it’s specific pieces of IF that give me this feeling. While I see great successes in the form, I also see untapped potential, which encourages me as I work on particular games and as I develop my IF system, Curveship.

5. What do you want your “interactors” to walk away with?

More to think about, so that solving puzzles and completing the game has opened up new questions and possibilities instead of wrapping everything up.

6. What potential problems (if any) do you see with IF?

It’s sometimes dismissed for the wrong reasons – I’m not sure that’s a problem with IF, really. I guess if people are expecting it to become mainstream again, they may be disappointed. I think IF is very interesting in its niche and on its margin, so this doesn’t bother me. Beyond that, IF has the same problems many literary and gaming forms do, such as: Most of it is not very good, and some of it in good in some ways but really problematic in others. But, as is the case with other types of literature and gaming, there are also some pieces of IF which are awesome.

7. Implementation is a fascinating idea. I have not read the entire sticker novel but enjoy the process of viewing pictures online or being a web reader. Are you simply exposing narratives/dialogues/scenarios in public areas all over the world so that it may inspire all walks of life? What is your goal or hope here? Is there is an overall theme to the sticker novel? If so, doesn’t this affect the interpretation of the place readers? Or,is it more of an experiment to see how publicized you can make the project?

One goal of the project is to extend the idea of sticker art – a really nice concept, I think – into literary practice. We wanted to offer these literary texts, ones that aren’t advertising anything, in public spaces for people to read and enjoy. That by itself, apart from the themes and plot of Implementation (and, yes, there is are themes and a plot), was meant to challenge what we see and read in public. Implementation isn’t mainly an attempt to publicize itself – most of the people on the street who read some of it won’t know that they’re reading a novel called Implementation and there’s nothing to advertise that Scott Rettberg and I wrote the text. Instead, it’s an attempt to introduce literary reading into a different set of spaces.

8. What started your passion/interest for the digital and literary world?

I can’t trace my interest in computing and the literary back to anything in particular, but as I was becoming an avid reader, I was also learning to program, and soon thereafter was playing and (clumsily) writing interactive fiction. So I see these two interests as very kindred with one another.

9. Just curious…how many hours a week do you spend on a computer? If a lot, does it have any negative effects physically or mentally?

I’m not sure I can estimate, but I spend a lot of time in different contexts (home, office, classrooms, coffeehouses, trains, planes) and can’t say that I do feel any strong negative effects. If I sat at the same desk for the same eight hours a day using a computer, I might, but I think I benefit from having a lot of choice in where, when, and how I work. I wish more people had this choice.

Lots Has Happened and Is Happening

Wednesday 18 November 2009, 5:57 pm   ////////  

Andrew Stern’s company Stumptown Game Machine released their Touch Pets Dogs, published by ngmoco for the iPhone. On this social network, everyone knows that you’re a virtual dog. Versions of it are in the top 10 free apps on the iPhone App Store now, and in the top 100 of pay apps.

Rover’s Day Out is the winner of the IF Comp. (Dogs everywhere!) The game is by Jack Welch and Ben Collins-Sussman. Broken Legs by Sarah Morayati took second, Snowquest by Eric Eve third. Congratulations to all authors! If you haven’t played the games yet, they’re still there waiting for you.

CYOA visualizations are the talk of the town: Mainly this extensive site that considers many books in the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure series, but also this PDF mapping Journey under the Sea.

People on the Interweb donated $25,000 to Jason Scott, the textfiles.com, BBS Documentary, and Get Lamp guy. Man, it’s so easy to get money on the Web. Maybe you could do it too, if you first spend years, in your spare time and without pay, saving BBS files, saving Geocities, documenting computer history, and generally amassing a larger archive of digital media history than almost every university in the world put together.

Truly “indie” artgames made the New York Times Magazine. Jason Roherer leads the charge, but many of the usual suspects are quoted in this look at how non-industrial gaming is augmenting and challenging games of the commercial sphere.

A new issue of Game Studies is out, with these articles: “The Character of Difference: Procedurality, Rhetoric, and Roleplaying Games,” “Moral Decision Making in Fallout,” “Cheesers, Pullers, and Glitchers: The Rhetoric of Sportsmanship and the Discourse of Online Sports Gamers,” and “World of Warcraft: Service or Space?” Game Studies is free to everyone! No page fees for authors! Peer reviewed! The future of academic publishing, already here, and about games!

JayIsGames hosts an IF contest and calls for interactive fiction authors to create escape-the-room games. The deadline for this Casual Gameplay Design Competition #7 is January 31. Z-code only, unfortunately for those of us wedded to Curveship, but that lets you use Inform 6 or 7.

ELO_AI: Archive & Innovate

Sunday 1 November 2009, 12:55 pm   /////////  

The Electronic Literature Organization‘s Fourth International Conference & Program of Digitally Mediated Literary Art

June 3-6, 2010 Brown University Providence, Rhode Island, USA Organized by the ELO and Writing Digital Media  at the Brown University Literary Arts Program dedicated to Robert Coover

The Electronic Literature Organization and Brown University’s Literary Arts Program invite submissions to the Electronic Literature Organization 2010 Conference to be held from June 3-6, 2008 in Providence, Rhode Island, USA.

  • electronic literature
  • writing digital media
  • language-driven digital poesis
  • literal art

We welcome papers and presentations on a broad range of topics. The conference will focus on the theory, criticism, close-reading, practice and archiving of language-driven digital art and poetics. Our gathering will also embrace all the related cultural practices that continue to be addressed by scholars and artists in our growing field:

  • expressive processing
  • computational art
  • artificial cognition and intelligence
  • aesthetic gaming
  • information art
  • codework
  • digitally mediated performance
  • network & media art & activism

In addition we will give a special welcome to papers that engage with the contribution that Robert Coover has made to our field. A festschrift comprised of papers from the conference is proposed and Professor Coover will be our chief featured eWriter. (Other featured speakers to be announced shortly.)

In conjunction with the three-day conference, there will be a juried Program of Language-Driven Digital Art, concentrating on but not confined to installation works. We plan to show the selected work in gallery spaces close to the conference venue in downtown Providence over a two week period. Subject to funding restrictions, selected artists will be awarded bursaries to assist with attending the conference. Submission guidelines will be posted on the conference website by mid November.

Deadline for Submissions: December 15, 2009 Notification of Acceptance: January 25, 2010

PLEASE NOTE: Deadline for full papers will be May 1, 2010 to allow for reflection and exchange on the papers prior to the conference and to get head-start in the publication process.

The basic cost of the conference is $150; graduate students and non-affiliated artists pay only $100.

Conference registration covers access to all events, the reception, some meals, and shuttle transportation.

All conference attendees are also expected to join the ELO before the conference and this can be done at registration.

We are planning to implement online submission and registration. Before submitting, please consult the conference website at …

http://ai.eliterature.org

… where these facilities will be available and where you will find much more information about both the content and the form of the conference and arts program.

After consulting the website, for further queries and all email correspondence contact:

elo dot ai at eliterature dot org

The above address should be used for all conference business. It will checked by myself and also those colleagues and students who will be assisting me with the conference organization. But I appreciate that you may sometimes also want to get in touch with the conference organizer:

John Cayley, Literary Arts Program Box 1923, Brown University 68 1/2 Brown Street Providence, RI 02912, USA office: +1 401 863 3966, John underscore Cayley at brown dot edu

The Conference is currently sponsored and supported by The Electronic Literature Organization, Brown University Literary Arts Program, Brown University Creative Arts Council, Brown University Library, and the RISD D+M Program.

Any organization or individual in receipt of this call who would like to sponsor and support this major international conference, please get in touch. External sponsors are being sought and will be appropriately acknowledged.

Of Late

Tuesday 13 October 2009, 9:49 pm   ///////  

People I know have been up to many things lately, and many of these surely deserve a full, thoughtful blog post. I won’t manage that, so the least I can do is mention that …

Jason Scott continues to back up Geocities, and, in the process of doing this, has posted page-heaps of under construction and email icons. Warning: ginormous.

Jason Nelson presented his new, uncanny, crapcredible game, Evidence of Everything Exploding.

Jason McIntosh has a great video about a non-digital game, Diplomacy, that he and friends did during a day-long session, wearing more-ot-less nationally appropriate hats.

zzzZRT: Unit compliance -- 0%. Unit appears incapable of mentioning people with any other first name. Attempting repair...

Jill Walker Rettberg has a short and insightful video about blogging as a way of learning.

Robert Pinsky’s libretto was sung in a musical reading of Tod Machover’s opera Death and the Powers at Cambridge’s A.R.T. on September 17. The workshop presentation (check out the photos) was a major milestone toward a full production of the digitally augmented “robot pageant,” which I found zestfully written and very cleverly framed.

Lots of people are playing and reviewing Interactive Fiction Competition games. A list of way-many reviews was put together and is being updated by Yoon Ha Lee.

Curveship in AI Magazine

Tuesday 13 October 2009, 7:06 pm   /////  

Delightfully, the current issue of AI Magazine (Volume 30, number 3, Fall 2009) is on computational creativity. The number offers articles on the field overall; the history of workshops on the topic; computer models of creativity; and creative systems to generate music, stories and their tellings, moves of chess, and humor. The last article is computer-generated in high Hofstadter style.

Pablo Gervás’s contribution, “Computational Approaches to Storytelling and Creativity,” provides a clear introduction to the concept of creativity and the history of the term, analyzes the relevant features that storytelling systems can work upon, gives an outline of work in computational creativity so far, and continues with a capsule summary of several important storytelling systems. The last one of these is my system nn, which I renamed “Curveship” as I started focusing on a public release of the software.

In the nn system for interactive fiction (Montfort 2007) the user controls the main character of a story by introducing simple descriptions of what it should do, and the system responds with descriptions of the outcomes of the character’s actions. Within nn, the Narrator module [now called the Teller] provides storytelling functionality, so that the user can be “told” the story of the interaction so far. The Narrator module of nn addresses important issues in storytelling that had not been addressed by previous systems: order of presentation in narrative and focalization. Instead of telling events always in chronological order, the nn Narrator allows various alternative possibilities: flashbacks, flash-forwards, interleaving of events from two different time periods, telling events back to front. It also captures appropriate treatment of tense depending on the relative ordering of speech time, reference time, and event time. Focalization is handled by the use of different focalizer worlds [now called concepts] within the system. Aside from the actual world of the interactive fiction system, nn maintains additional separate worlds representing the individual perspectives and beliefs of different characters. These can be used to achieve correct treatment of focalization (telling the story from the point of view of specific characters). [pp. 57-58]

In discussing the systems, Gervás notes (and I agree) that the other systems he discussed, ranging from Klein’s Novel Writer and Meehan’s Talespin to The Virtual Storyteller and Riedl’s Fabulist, are system for inventing stories, while nn’s Narrator (Curveship’s Teller) is the only system for telling stories. He writes:

If the processes for inventing stories in the reviewed systems rate low in terms of creativity, the rating obtained by processes for telling stories is even sadder. The challenge of how to tell a story has received very little attention in general, and it is mostly tagged on as a final stage to systems that concentrate on inventing stories. The nn system is a notable exception in that it involves a significant effort to model computationally some of the basic elements contained in Genette’s work on narrative discourse (Genette 1980): relative order of presentation and focalization. However, all the systems that tell the stories they invent do in fact include default solutions to many of the technical challenges involved in telling a story. [p. 60]

Although Gervás has provided a good take on the system, I’ll just note one way in which Curveship (née nn) does a bit more than the article might suggest to reader and one way in which it does less.

Genette described five categories of narrative discourse: order, frequency, speed, mood (which includes focalization), and voice (which includes distance). Curveship can vary not only order and focalization; it also allows for significant variation in the other three categories. I hope this will be of practical interest to interactive fiction authors and to those seeking to teach narrative theory using Curveship. However, the main research advances that have been made so far are in the two areas that Gervás indicates: order and mood (specifically, focalization).

While Curveship can automatically creative narrative variation based on parameters, I have to note that I am not putting it forth as a creative system. This makes it unlike many of the programs discussed in Gervás’s article and in this issue of AI Magazine. Given a specification for telling (which is called a spin), the system can make the appropriate changes and generate suitable text. However, the system does not, by itself, determine how a story should be told. The code that individual IF authors and AI researchers write is needed to accomplish that task.

Of course, formalizing the elements of narrative variation is necessary for any principled system that is supposed to vary the telling of a story. I hope that Curveship’s Teller will be deeply relevant to work in the creative invention and telling of stories, and that it will be used not only to enable new sorts of learning systems and interactive fiction pieces but also, in modified or unmodified form, as a component of creative systems.

The Games Begin

Saturday 3 October 2009, 11:56 pm   ////  

The 15th Interactive Fiction Competition games are out. You can download them and, this year, play 14 of them online. Voting in the IF Comp is done by the public at large, so you can participate at the ballot box as well as at the prompt.

Interactive Fiction Suggestions, Fall 2009

Thursday 10 September 2009, 12:29 am   /////  

People who are interested in interactive fiction but who haven’t played much or any of it ask me for suggestions from time to time — not as often as I’d like, of course, but, luckily, once in a while. I’ve had a page of recommendations up on my site since 2005. The games on that list remain good ones, but I’m now updating those recommendations to take into account games from recent years. I’m posting the new recommendations here. Note that many of the people who ask me about IF are of a literary bent, as am I, and my suggestions reflect that.

A good introduction to interactive fiction does not have to be easy or simple. A game that you have to restart several times, and that you can only scratch the surface of after a few hours of effort, may show you, by being intricate and compelling, why it’s really worthwhile to try to meet the challenges of IF. It seems most important to me that a piece of IF quickly gives a sense of the powerful, interesting play of simulation and language. Such a game might happen to be hard or easy. On the other hand, some good games rely on a player knowing about IF conventions and even particular earlier games, characters, or puzzles. These often aren’t good places for someone just starting. There are many good commercial games from the 1980s and some from more recent times, but in my main list, I’ve limited myself to games that authors have made available for free download.

Although it’s possible to play some IF on the Web, it’s really best to use an interpreter to run all of this interactive fiction; the interpreter is to IF as the Flash player is to Flash and the Web browser is to the Web. There are good interpreters for Windows (Gargoyle) and Mac OS X (Spatterlight) that run IF in all of the major formats; you can also find interpreters for Linux and for smartphones. There are plenty of things you can read to help you play interactive fiction — one that I’d particularly suggest is Emily Short’s PDF introducing interactive fiction — but if you have the chance to play together with someone who knows the conventions of IF and has played a few games before, that will surely be the best way to get into IF.

These are my suggestions for eager first-time IF players, organized by year of release:

Anchorhead by Michael Gentry, 1998

A sprawling horror based on the mythos of H.P. Lovecraft, with exquisite attention to detail and compelling characters and places.

Bad Machine by Dan Shiovitz, 1999

The surface of this game seems to be a confusion of code, error messages, and a small bit of English, but its strange science fiction world is deeply systematic.

For a Change by Dan Schmidt, 1999

Schmidt’s game programming is better known thanks to Guitar Hero but before he coded that up he was inspired by Ben Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String and wrote this piece of interactive fiction, which features an odd lexicon and curious, magical assemblages.

Varicella by Adam Cadre, 1999

A sort of revenge-play, difficult, complex, and worth several attempts. A strange palace holds intrigues, surprises, an array of excellent characters who wander and plot against the player character, the palace minister.

Shade by Andrew Plotkin, 2000

The most famous “one room game in your apartment.” What seems to be a sleepless night undergoes a disturbing transformation as the character, undertaking ordinary actions, uncovers a different reality.

Slouching towards Bedlam by Daniel Ravipinto and Star C. Foster, 2003

An intricate steampunk piece with that deals with insanity and language and offer several different concluding threads.

Whom the Telling Changed by Aaron Reed, 2005

A reframing and reworking of Gilgamesh, the first known epic, which combines elements of hypertext-like word selection with the usual command-based IF interface.

Bronze by Emily Short, 2006

Reworks the beauty and the beast legend, embedding memories in an architectural space in compelling ways. It has a special “novice mode” and a status-line compass that will aid players in understanding and navigating IF locations.

Lost Pig (And Place Under Ground) by Admiral Jota, 2007

A hilarious underground romp that brings every major type of puzzle together in miniature form. The really wonderful aspect is the orcish, semi-literate narration that is used throughout.

Violet by Jeremy Freese, 2008

A graduate student locks himself in his office to try to make progress on his dissertation. The puzzles, as the player seeks to overcome distraction, are amusing, but the atmosphere and the voice of the character’s absent, imagined girlfriend are extraordinary.

I still like all of the pieces I originally suggested, but, in the interests of bringing in some newer games while making only ten main suggestions, I’m moving these here: Aisle, by Sam Barlow, 1999; Dangerous Curves, by Irene Callaci. 2000; The Edifice, by Lucian Paul Smith, 1999. Savoir-Faire, by Emily Short, 2002. And, in case you feel comfortable obtaining (previously) commercial games from abandonware sites or want to quest for them on eBay, I’ll also mention A Mind Forever Voyaging, by Steven Meretzky, Infocom, 1985; Mindwheel, by Robert Pinsky, Brøderbund/Synapse, 1984; Suspended, by Michael Berlyn, Infocom, 1983; Trinity, by Brian Moriarty, Infocom, 1986; and Wishbringer, by Brian Moriarty, Infocom, 1985. Note that reading or at least looking over the documentation to these commercial games is often very useful, and sometimes essential, in getting started with them.

Does anyone else have other good IF starting points to suggest? Or, does anyone want to report experiences of delight or frustration with one of these ten games?

Presence in Interactive Fiction

Wednesday 19 August 2009, 2:33 pm   /////  

The first issue of the Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds, from earlier this year, sports a nice article by Alf Seegert, “Doing there’ vs. ‘being there’: performing presence in interactive fiction.” In it, Seegert sharpens the existing discussion of reader-response theory and IF to explain how IF may need to balance between boredom and overstrain and how the writerly role allows for new sorts of presence. He then conducts some good discussions of Jon Ingold’s All Roads (highlighting how the body of the player character is indicated) and Paul O’Brian’s Luminous Horizon (looking particularly at the subjective narration).

Looks like a single issue of the Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds costs £18, unfortunately. (Institutional subscriptions are £150.) Too bad, particularly since there are least three peer-reviewed, open-access, no-page-fee journals in the field (Game Studies, Digital Humanities Quarterly, and eLudamos) that were up and running before this one was founded. Update: That is the advertised price, but the issue is currently available for free, as is the article.

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