Planet Interactive Fiction

April 19, 2019

"Aaron Reed"

Designing Playable Conversational Spaces

by Aaron A. Reed at April 19, 2019 08:42 PM

My colleagues and I at Spirit AI have been blogging for the past few months about the unique possibilities and challenges of authoring for Character Engine. While the system supports multiple possible models of input, including gestures or dynamic menus, one mode supports full natural language input. Handling this kind of input is obviously a challenge, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think.

Character Engine can replace both fixed player input (a set of menu options) and fixed NPC output (prerecorded voiceover lines) with more dynamic alternatives.

We’ve written previously about how our system works, and the technical side of natural language processing obviously presents a number of challenges. But by creating an entirely new paradigm for interacting with conversational characters, we also have a big design challenge as well. Just as the real point of a physics-driven 3D world is not to be an accurate simulation of space and motion but to be a fun sandbox for players to explore, the real point of a conversational game is not to pass the Turing test, but to guide players through a rewarding conversation telling a story. We’re only starting to come to grips with how to craft a well-designed conversational space, and I’d like to share some of the lessons we’ve learned so far.

The first is setting expectations. Put someone in front of a bot with a conversational interface, and invariably the first thing they’ll try to do is stump it. I suspect this is basic psychology, driven by our inherent suspicion of anything pretending to be human. So the key is to use some basic psychology back: rather than drop the players into a completely free-form and open-ended conversation, it’s crucial to prepare them — train them, as we would when introducing any other kind of new game system — how to engage with this character in a productive and useful way.

This is similar to a design lesson I learned from my years writing text adventures: while a room description might seem on the surface like a standard bit of descriptive prose, in a well-designed game it’s actually crafted with incredible care to guide the player toward the nouns and verbs that will be useful to them and to avoid the ones that won’t. Similarly, in a natural language game, what your characters say, especially in their first few interactions, is vital to setting expectations. Consider these two possible opening lines:

Alice: Hello, and welcome to Hotel Jabberwock! I’m Alice. Please let me know how I can help you.
Alice: Welcome to Hotel Jabberwock, east Wonderland’s premiere resort! I hope the mome raths aren’t bothering you. You’re checking in to our VIP suite, yes?

The second opening line is much better. It sets the stage and provides a familiar social interaction (checking into a hotel) which the player will feel subtle pressure to play along with. It suggests by mentioning some specific things in the world that it’s okay to ask questions about them. It implies a specific role for the player to inhabit in this scenario (rich tourist). Most importantly, it suggests several obvious follow-ups which authors can be sure they’re covering (saying “yes” or “I don’t have a reservation”; asking “What the heck are mome raths?” or “What else is in east Wonderland?” or “Is there a west Wonderland?”).

Other useful ways to set expectations in NPC lines include:

  • Suggest (directly or indirectly) a response.
  • Ask a question, ideally one with a tractable set of likely answers.
  • Mention topics or bits of the world you want characters to explore
  • Avoid stalling out (leaving the player hanging).

The last point is an important one. Replying with something that doesn’t give the player anything to work with (“I see.” “No problem!”) or simply answering a question (“Charles works for Valtrox”) doesn’t do much to help the player continue the conversation. Character Engine supports a useful system where certain bits of text can be tagged End Thought or New Thought. If a character speaks an End and can find a valid New to transition to, they try to do so. This means we can tag generic fallbacks or flat answers with End Thought, and write a series of contextual New Thoughts that keep giving the player new prompts, and lead the conversation back into terrain we’ve got content for:

“No problem [End]. So how’s your investigation going? [New]
“Charles works for Valtrox [End]. He doesn’t get along with his boss Kim at all. [New]

Despite these cues, players can of course still say anything they want at any time — that’s a fundamental aspect (but also a huge potential win) of any conversational interface. Since we’re not trying to pass the Turing Test, we don’t actually need or even want NPCs to handle completely off-topic statements (“What do you think of Aristotle’s metaphysics?”) But we do need to respond in some way to anything the player says. A good solution is to have a series of overlapping fallbacks that try to redirect the player back to productive zones of conversation.

For instance, say we have a number of facts about Alice in our knowledge model, but aren’t able to answer a particular question like “Why does Alice wear that old-fashioned dress?” In a well-designed project, we might have a fallback line keyed on recognizing QUESTION:WHY and Alice in the player’s input, maybe something like “Who knows why Alice does anything? [End]” This is a deflection from the fact that we didn’t really understand, but we disguise it by immediately moving on to a new subject.

It’s unlikely that we’ll have something useful for every combination of inputs, of course, so we can also write “coverage” of less-specific fallbacks.

QUESTION:WHY > “I have no idea why. [End]”
Any QUESTION > “Interesting question, but look: [End]”
Alice > “Did you know Alice was recently seen at the Queen’s court?”

We might also have fallbacks for specific scenes, or emotional or tension levels we’re tracking:

Scene: At The Court > “Hang on, is that a flamingo over there?!”
Tension: High > “There’s no time for that right now! [End] Cut the green wire before the bomb goes off! [New when bomb_state=ticking]

All of these are whiffs, of course — a human could probably improvise something better — but the idea in this kind of failure case is to acknowledge in some way that you heard at least part of the player’s input, and move as quickly as possible back into familiar territory.

One final challenge which we didn’t anticipate before people started testing our games: experienced players would sometimes start interacting in single-word utterances, perhaps assuming the system is just looking for keywords. Ironically, because our system is designed to use so many other cues, this interaction style can make it fairly inept at accurately conversing, which reminds me of this scene from Young Frankenstein:

“Why are you talking that way?” “I thought you wanted to.” Image © 20th Century Fox

This is another design problem: how do we train players to speak the way we want them to? One technique is to make sure we’re responding to multiple channels of input. If we give a player a response that looks like it’s just reacting to a keyword:

Player: blah blah blah swordfish blah blah…
NPC: The swordfish is a predatory fish characterized by…

…players can’t be blamed for assuming everything other than that keyword is irrelevant. If, on the other hand, we let text recombine and vary based on multiple aspects of the player’s input and the ongoing state, more of that input starts seeming relevant:

Player: hey, where blah blah swordfish blah blah you jerk
NPC: Well there’s no need to be rude, but I do know the
swordfish often migrates in…

These design lessons continue to impact the way we push the technical capabilities of the system, which in turn provokes new design challenges and new derived wisdom. One direction we’re always striving toward is to help the user feel like they’re playing along with a conversation rather than playing against it. Making conversational characters technically possible doesn’t get you much if you don’t also design an interaction space that helps players have productive conversations, and the techniques discussed here — setting expectations, prompting behavior, and redirecting failure — are some small steps in that direction.

Designing Playable Conversational Spaces was originally published in Spirit AI on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

The Digital Antiquarian

An Unlikely Savior

by Jimmy Maher at April 19, 2019 04:41 PM

Activision Blizzard is the largest game publisher in the Western world today, generating a staggering $7.5 billion in revenue every year. Along with the only slightly smaller behemoth Electronic Arts and a few Japanese competitors, Activision for all intents and purposes is the face of gaming as a mainstream, mass-media phenomenon. Even as the gaming intelligentsia looks askance at Activision for their unshakeable fixation on sequels and tried-and-true formulas, the general public just can’t seem to get enough Call of Duty, Guitar Hero, World of Warcraft, and Candy Crush Saga. Likewise, Bobby Kotick, who has sat in the CEO’s chair at Activision for over a quarter of a century now, is as hated by gamers of a certain progressive sensibility as he is loved by the investment community.

But Activision’s story could have — perhaps by all rights should have — gone very differently. When Kotick became CEO, the company was a shambling wreck that hadn’t been consistently profitable in almost a decade. Mismanagement combined with bad luck had driven it to the ragged edge of oblivion. What to a large degree saved Activision and made the world safe for World of Warcraft was, of all things, a defunct maker of text adventures which longtime readers of this ongoing history have gotten to know quite well. The fact that Infocom, the red-headed stepchild a previous Activision CEO had never wanted, is directly responsible for Activision’s continuing existence today is one of the strangest aspects of both companies’ stories.

The reinvention of Activision engineered by Bobby Kotick in the early 1990s was actually the company’s third in less than a decade.

Activision 1.0 was founded in 1979 by four former Atari programmers known as the “Fantastic Four,” along with a former music-industry executive named Jim Levy. Their founding tenets were that Atari VCS owners deserved better games than the console’s parent was currently giving them, and that Atari VCS game programmers deserved more recognition and more money than were currently forthcoming from the same source. They parlayed that philosophy into one of the most remarkable success stories of the first great videogame boom; their game Pitfall! alone sold more than 4 million copies in 1982. It would, alas, be a long, long time before Activision would enjoy success like that again.

Following the Great Videogame Crash of 1983, Levy tried to remake Activision into a publisher of home-computer games with a certain high-concept, artsy air. But, while the ambitions of releases like Little Computer People, Alter Ego, and Portal still make them interesting case studies today, Activision 2.0 generated few outright hits. Six months after Levy had acquired Infocom, the preeminent maker of artsy computer games, in mid-1986, he was forced out by his board.

Levy’s replacement was a corporate lawyer named Bruce Davis. He nixed the artsy fare, doubled down on licensed titles, and tried to establish Activision 3.0 as a maker of mass-market general-purpose computer software as well as games. Eighteen months into his tenure, he changed the company’s name to Mediagenic to reflect this new identity. But the new products were, like the new name, mostly bland in a soulless corporate way that, in the opinion of many, reflected Davis’s own personality all too accurately. By decade’s end, Mediagenic was regarded as an important player within their industry at least as much for their distributional clout, a legacy of their early days of Atari VCS success, as for the games and software they published under their own imprint. A good chunk of the industry used Mediagenic’s network to distribute their wares as members of the company’s affiliated-labels program.

Then the loss of a major lawsuit, combined with a slow accretion of questionable decisions from Davis, led to a complete implosion in 1990. The piggy bank provided by Activision 1.0’s success had finally run dry, and most observers assumed that was that for Mediagenic — or Activision, or whatever they preferred to call themselves today.

But over the course of 1991, a fast-talking wiz kid named Bobby Kotick seized control of the mortally wounded mastodon and put it through the wringer of bankruptcy. What emerged by the end of that year was so transformed as to raise the philosophical question of whether it ought to be considered the same entity at all. The new company employed just 10 percent as many people as the old (25 rather than 250) and was headquartered in a different region entirely (Los Angeles rather than Silicon Valley). It even had a new name — or, rather, an old one. Perhaps the smartest move Kotick ever made was to reclaim the company’s old appellation of “Activision,” still redolent for many of the nostalgia-rich first golden age of videogames, in lieu of the universally mocked corporatese of “Mediagenic.” Activision 4.0, the name reversion seemed to say, wouldn’t be afraid of their heritage in the way that versions 2.0 and 3.0 had been. Nor would they be shy about labeling themselves a maker of games, full stop; Mediagenic’s lines of “personal-productivity” software and the like were among the first things Kotick trashed.

Kotick was still considerably short of his thirtieth birthday when he took on the role of Activision’s supreme leader, but he felt like he’d been waiting for this opportunity forever. He’d spent much of the previous decade sniffing around at the margins of the industry, looking for a way to become a mover and shaker of note. (In 1987, for instance, at the tender age of 24, he’d made a serious attempt to scrape together a pool of investors to buy the computer company Commodore.) Now, at last, he had his chance to be a difference maker.

It was indeed a grand chance, but it was also an extremely tenuous one. He had been able to save Activision — save it for the time being, that is — only by mortgaging some 95 percent of it to its numerous creditors. These creditors-cum-investors were empowered to pull the plug at any time; Kotick himself maintained his position as CEO only by their grace. He needed product to stop the bleeding and add some black to the sea of red ink that was Activision’s books, thereby to show the creditors that their forbearance toward this tottering company with a snot-nosed greenhorn at the head hadn’t been a mistake. But where was said product to come from? Activision was starved for cash even as the typical game-development budget in the industry around them was increasing almost exponentially year over year. And it wasn’t as if third-party developers were lining up to work with them; they’d stiffed half the industry in the process of going through bankruptcy.

To get the product spigot flowing again, Kotick found a partner to join him in the executive suite. Peter Doctorow had spent the last six years or so with Accolade (a company ironically founded by two ex-Activision developers in 1984, in a fashion amusingly similar to the way that restless Atari programmers had begotten Activision). In the role of product-development guru, Doctorow had done much to create and maintain Accolade’s reputation as a maker of attractive and accessible games with natural commercial appeal. Activision, on the other hand, hadn’t enjoyed a comparable reputation since the heyday of the Atari VCS. Jumping ship from the successful Accolade to an Activision on life support would have struck most as a fool’s leap, but Kotick could be very persuasive. He managed to tempt Doctorow away with the title of president and the promise of an opportunity to build something entirely new from the ground up.

Of course, building materials for the new thing could and should still be scrounged from the ruins of Mediagenic whenever possible. After arriving at Activision, Doctorow thus made his first priority an inventory of what he already had to work with in the form of technology and intellectual property. On the whole, it wasn’t a pretty picture. Activision had never been particularly good at spawning the surefire franchises that gaming executives love. There were no Leisure Suit Larrys or Lord Britishes lurking in their archives — much less any Super Marios. Pitfall!, the most famous and successful title of all from the Atari VCS halcyon days, might be a candidate for revival, but its simple platforming charms were at odds with where computer gaming was and where it seemed to be going in the early 1990s; the talk in the industry was all about multimedia, live-action video, interactive movies, and story, story, story. Pitfall! would have been a more natural fit on the consoles, but Kotick and Doctorow weren’t sure they had the resources to compete as of yet in those hyper-competitive, expensive-to-enter walled gardens. Their first beachhead, they decided, ought to be on computers.

In that context, there were all those old Infocom games… was there some commercial potential there? Certainly Zork still had more name recognition than any property in the Activision stable other than Pitfall!.

Ironically, the question of a potential Infocom revival would have been moot if Bruce Davis had gotten his way. He had never wanted Infocom, having advised his predecessor Jim Levy strongly against acquiring them when he was still a mere paid consultant. When Infocom delivered a long string of poor-selling games over the course of 1987 and 1988, he felt vindicated, and justified in ordering their offices closed permanently in the spring of 1989.

Even after that seemingly final insult, Davis continued to make clear his lack of respect for Infocom. During the mad scramble for cash preceding the ultimate collapse of Mediagenic, he called several people in the industry, including Ken Williams at Sierra and Bob Bates at the newly founded Legend Entertainment, to see if they would be interested in buying the whole Infocom legacy outright — including games, copyrights, trademarks, source code, and the whole stack of development tools. He dropped his asking price as low as $25,000 without finding a taker; the multimedia-obsessed Williams had never had much interest in text adventures, and Bates was trying to get Legend off the ground and simply didn’t have the money to spare.

When a Mediagenic producer named Kelly Zmak learned what Davis was doing, he told him he was crazy. Zmak said that he believed there was still far more than $25,000 worth of value in the Infocom properties, in the form of nostalgia if nothing else. He believed there would be a market for a compilation of Infocom games, which were now available only as pricey out-of-print collectibles. Davis was skeptical — the appeal of Infocom’s games had always been lost on him — but told Zmak that, if he could put such a thing together for no more than $10,000, they might as well give it a try. Any port in a storm, as they say.

As it happened, Mediagenic’s downfall was complete before Zmak could get his proposed compilation into stores. But he was one of the few who got to keep his job with the resurrected company, and he made it clear to his new managers that he still believed there was real money to be made from the Infocom legacy. Kotick and Doctorow agreed to let him finish up his interrupted project.

And so one of the first products from the new Activision 4.0 became a collection of old games from the eras of Activision 3.0, 2.0, and even 1.0. It was known as The Lost Treasures of Infocom, and first entered shops very early in 1992.

Activision’s stewardship of the legacy that had been bequeathed to them was about as respectful as one could hope for under the circumstances. The compilation included 20 of the 35 canonical Infocom games. The selection felt a little random; while most of the really big, iconic titles — like all of the Zork games, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Enchanter trilogy, and Planetfall — were included, the 100,000-plus-selling Leather Goddesses of Phobos and Wishbringer were oddly absent. The feelies that had been such an important part of the Infocom experience were reduced to badly photocopied facsimiles lumped together in a thick, cheaply printed black-and-white manual — if, that is, they made the package at all. The compilers’ choices of which feelies ought to be included were as hit-and-miss as their selection of games, and in at least one case — that of Ballyhoo — the loss of an essential feelie rendered a game unwinnable without recourse to outside resources. Hardcore Infocom fans had good reason to bemoan this ugly mockery of the original games’ lovingly crafted packaging. “Where is the soul?” asked one of them in print, speaking for them all.

But any real or perceived lack of soul didn’t stop people from buying the thing. In fact, people bought it in greater numbers than even Kelly Zmak had dared to predict. At least 100,000 copies of The Lost Treasures of Infocom were sold — numbers better than any individual Infocom game had managed since 1986 — at a typical street price of about $60. With a response like that, Activision wasted no time in releasing most of the remaining games as The Lost Treasures of Infocom II, to sales that were almost as good. Along with Legend Entertainment’s final few illustrated text adventures, Lost Treasures I and II mark the last gasps of interactive fiction as a force in mainstream commercial American computer gaming.

The Lost Treasures of Infocom — the only shovelware compilation ever to spark a full-on artistic movement.

Yet these two early examples of the soon-to-be-ubiquitous practice of the shovelware compilation constitute a form of beginning as well as ending.  By collecting the vast majority of the Infocom legacy in one place, they cemented the idea of an established Infocom canon of Great Works, providing all those who would seek to make or play text adventures in the future with an easily accessible shared heritage from which to draw. For the Renaissance of amateur interactive fiction that would take firm hold by the mid-1990s, the Lost Treasures would become a sort of equivalent to what The Complete Works of William Shakespeare means to English literature. Had such heretofore obscure but groundbreaking Infocom releases as, say, Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It and Plundered Hearts not been collected in this manner, it’s doubtful whether they ever could have become as influential as they would eventually prove. Certainly a considerable percentage of the figures who would go on to make the Interactive Fiction Renaissance a reality completed their Infocom collection or even discovered the company’s rich legacy for the first time thanks to the Lost Treasures compilations.

Brian Eno once famously said that, while only about 30,000 people bought the Velvet Underground’s debut album, every one of them who did went out and started a band. A similar bit of hyperbole might be applied to the 100,000-and-change who bought Lost Treasures. These compilations did much to change perceptions of Infocom, from a mere interesting relic of an earlier era of gaming into something timeless and, well, canonical — a rich literary tradition that deserved to be maintained and further developed. It’s fair to ask whether the entire vibrant ecosystem of interactive fiction that remains with us today, in the form of such entities as the annual IF Comp and the Inform programming language, would ever have come to exist absent the Lost Treasures. Their importance to everything that would follow in interactive fiction is so pronounced that anecdotes involving them will doubtless continue to surface again and again as we observe the birth of a new community built around the love of text and parsers in future articles on this site.

For Activision, on the other hand, the Lost Treasures compilations made a much more immediate and practical difference. What with their development costs of close to zero and their no-frills packaging that hadn’t cost all that much more to put together, every copy sold was as close to pure profit as a game could possibly get. They made an immediate difference to Activision’s financial picture, giving them some desperately needed breathing room to think about next steps.

Observing the success of the compilations, Peter Doctorow was inclined to return to the Infocom well again. In fact, he had for some time now been eyeing Leather Goddesses of Phobos, Infocom’s last genuine hit, with interest. In the time since it had sold 130,000 copies in 1986, similarly risqué adventure games had become a profitable niche market: Sierra’s Leisure Suit Larry series, Legend’s Spellcasting series, and Accolade’s Les Manley series had all done more or less well. There ought to be a space, Doctorow reasoned, for a sequel to the game which had started the trend by demonstrating that, in games as just about everywhere else, Sex Sells. Hewing to this timeless maxim, he had made a point of holding the first Leather Goddesses out of the Lost Treasures compilations in favor of giving it its own re-release as a standalone $10 budget title — the only one of the old Infocom games to be accorded this honor.

Doctorow had a tool which he very much wanted to use in the service of a new adventure game. Whilst casting through the odds and ends of technology left over from the Mediagenic days, he had come upon something known as the Multimedia Applications Development Environment, the work of a small internal team of developers headed by one William Volk. MADE had been designed to facilitate immersive multimedia environments under MS-DOS that were much like the Apple Macintosh’s widely lauded HyperCard environment. In fact, Mediagenic had used it just before the wheels had come off to publish a colorized MS-DOS port of The Manhole, Rand and Robyn Miller’s unique HyperCard-based “fantasy exploration for children of all ages.” Volk and most of his people were among the survivors from the old times still around at the new Activision, and the combination of the MADE engine with Leather Goddesses struck Doctorow as a commercially potent one. He thus signed Steve Meretzky, designer of the original game, to write a sequel to this second most popular game he had ever worked on. (The most popular of all, of course, had been Hitchhiker’s, which was off limits thanks to the complications of licensing.)

But from the beginning, the project was beset by cognitive dissonance, alongside extreme pressure, born of Activision’s precarious finances, to just get the game done as quickly as possible. Activision’s management had decided that adventure games in the multimedia age ought to be capable of appealing to a far wider, less stereotypically eggheaded audience than the games of yore, and therefore issued firm instructions to Meretzky and the rest of the development team to include only the simplest of puzzles. Yet this prioritization of simplicity above all else rather belied the new game’s status as a sequel to an Infocom game which, in addition to its lurid content, had featured arguably the best set of interlocking puzzles Meretzky had ever come up with. The first Leather Goddesses had been a veritable master class in classic adventure-game design. The second would be… something else.

Which isn’t to say that the sequel didn’t incorporate some original ideas of its own; they were just orthogonal to those that had made the original so great. Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2: Gas Pump Girls Meet the Pulsating Inconvenience from Planet X really wanted to a be a CD-based title, but a critical mass of CD-ROM-equipped computers just wasn’t quite there yet at the time it was made. So, when it shipped in May of 1992 it filled 17 (!) floppy disks, using the space mostly for, as Activision’s advertisements proudly trumpeted in somewhat mangled diction, “more than an hour of amazing digital sound track!” Because a fair number of MS-DOS computer owners still didn’t have sound cards at this point, and because a fair proportion of those that did had older models of same that weren’t up to the task of delivering digitized audio as opposed to synthesized sounds and music, Activision also included a “LifeSize Sound Enhancer” in every box — a little gadget with a basic digital-to-analog circuit and a speaker inside it, which could be plugged into the printer port to make the game talk. This addition pushed the price up into the $60 range, making the game a tough sell for the bare few hours of content it offered — particularly if you already had a decent sound card and thus didn’t even need the hardware gadget you were being forced to pay for. Indeed, thanks to those 17 floppy disks, Leather Goddesses 2 would come perilously close to taking most gamers longer to install than it would to actually play.

That said, brevity was among the least of the game’s sins: Leather Goddesses 2 truly was a comprehensive creative disaster. The fact that this entire game was built from an overly literal interpretation of a tossed-off joke at the end of its predecessor says it all really. Meretzky’s designs had been getting lazier for years by the time this one arrived, but this game, his first to rely solely on a point-and-click interface, marked a new low for him. Not only were the brilliant puzzles that used to do at least as much as his humor to make his games special entirely absent, but so was all of the subversive edge to his writing. To be fair, Activision’s determination to make the game as accessible as possible — read, trivially easy — may have largely accounted for the former lack. Meretzky chafed at watching much of the puzzle design — if this game’s rudimentary interactivity can even be described using those words — get put together without him in Activision’s offices, a continent away from his Boston home. The careless writing, however, is harder to make excuses for.

In the tradition of the first Leather Goddesses, the sequel lets you choose to play as a man or a woman — or, this time, as an alien of indeterminate sex.

Still, this game is obviously designed for the proverbial male gaze. The real question is, why were all these attempts to be sexy in games so painfully, despressingly unsexy? Has anyone ever gotten really turned on by a picture like this one?

Earlier Meretzky games had known they were stupid, and that smart sense of self-awareness blinking through between the stupid had been their saving grace when they wandered into questionable, even borderline offensive territory. This one, on the other hand, was as introspective as one of the bimbos who lived within it. Was this really the same designer who just seven years before had so unabashedly aimed for Meaning in the most literary sense with A Mind Forever Voyaging? During his time at Infocom, Meretzky had been the Man of 1000 Ideas, who could rattle off densely packed pages full of games he wanted to make when given the least bit of encouragement. And yet by the end of 1992, he had made basically the same game four times in a row, with diminishing returns every time out. Just how far did he think he could ride scantily clad babes and broad innuendo? The shtick was wearing thin.

The women in many games of this ilk appear to be assembled from spare parts that don’t quite fit together properly.

Here, though, that would seem to literally be the case. These two girls have the exact same breasts.

In his perceptive review of Leather Goddesses 2 for Computer Gaming World magazine, Chris Lombardi pointed out how far Meretzky had fallen, how cheap and exploitative the game felt — and not even cheap and exploitative in a good way, for those who really were looking for titillation above all else.

The treatment of sex in LGOP2 seems so gratuitous, and adolescent, and (to use a friend’s favorite adjective for pop music) insipid. The game’s “explicit” visual content is all very tame (no more explicit than a beer commercial, really) and, for the most part, involves rather mediocre images of women in tight shirts, garters, or leather, most with impossibly protruding nipples. It’s the stuff of a Wally Cleaver daydream, which is appropriate to the game’s context, I suppose.

It appears quite innocuous at first, yet as I played along I began to sense an underlying attitude running through it all that can best be seen in the use of a whorehouse in the game. When one approaches this whorehouse, one is served a menu of a dozen or so names to choose from. Choosing a name takes players to a harlot’s room and affords them a “look at the goods.” Though loosely integrated into the storyline, it is all too apparent that it is merely an excuse for a slideshow of more rather average drawings of women.

You have to wonder what Activision was thinking. Do they imagine adults are turned on or, at minimum, entertained by this stuff? If they do, then I think they’ve misunderstood their market. And that must be the case, for the only other possibility is to suggest that their real target market is actually, and more insidiously, a younger, larger slice of the computer-game demographic pie.

On the whole, Lombardi was kinder to the game than I would have been, but his review nevertheless raised the ire of Peter Doctorow, who wrote in to the magazine with an ad hominem response: “It seems clear to me that you must be among those who long for the good old days, when films were black and white, comic books were a dime, and you could get an American-made gas guzzler with a distinct personality, meticulously designed taillights, and a grill reminiscent of a gargantuan grin. Sadly, the merry band that was Infocom can no longer be supported with text adventures.”

It seldom profits a creator to attempt to rebut a reviewer’s opinion, as Doctorow ought to have been experienced enough to know. His graceless accusation of Ludditism, which didn’t even address the real concerns Lombardi stated in his review, is perhaps actually a response to a vocal minority of the Infocom hardcore who were guaranteed to give Activision grief for any attempt to drag a beloved legacy into the multimedia age. Even more so, though, it was a sign of the extreme financial duress under which Activision still labored. Computer Gaming World was widely accepted as the American journal of record for the hobby in question, and their opinions could make or break a game’s commercial prospects. The lukewarm review doubtless contributed to Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2‘s failure to sell anywhere near as many copies as the Lost Treasures compilations — and at a time when Activision couldn’t afford to be releasing flops.

So, for more reasons than one, Leather Goddesses 2 would go down in history as an embarrassing blot on the CV of everyone involved. Sex, it seemed, didn’t always sell after all — not when it was done this poorly.

One might have thought that the failure of Leather Goddesses 2 would convince Activision not to attempt any further Infocom revivals. Yet once the smoke cleared even the defensive Doctorow could recognize that its execution had been, to say the least, lacking. And there still remained the counterexample of the Lost Treasures compilations, which were continuing to sell briskly. Activision thus decided to try again — this time with a far more concerted, better-funded effort that would exploit the most famous Infocom brand of all. Zork itself was about to make a splashy return to center stage.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of April 1992, July 1992, and October 1992; Questbusters of February 1992 and August 1992; Compute! of November 1987; Amazing Computing of April 1992; Commodore Magazine of July 1989; .info of April 1992. Online sources include Roger J. Long’s review of the first Lost Treasures compilation. Some of this article is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Finally, my huge thanks to William Volk and Bob Bates for sharing their memories and impressions with me in personal interviews.)

April 18, 2019

Zarf Updates

What is ZIL anyway?

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at April 18, 2019 02:28 AM

The Infocom ZIL code dump has kicked off a small whirlwind of news articles and blog posts. A lot of them are somewhat hazy on what ZIL is, and how it relates to MDL, Lisp, Z-code, Inform, and the rest of the Golden-Age IF ecosystem.
So I'm going to talk a lot about it! With examples. But let's go through in chronological order.
The first version of Zork was MDL Zork. This is what Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling wrote as MIT hackers around 1977 to 1979. MDL, the MIT Design Language, was a Lisp-like functional language created at MIT. MDL ran on the PDP-10, so that's where this ur-Zork ran.
Zork was ported to Fortran by Bob Supnik in 1980, and then to C. These versions, generally known as "mainframe Zork" (or "Dungeon") circulated among DEC user groups, wasted years of mainframe user time, and -- along with "mainframe Colossal Cave" -- changed the lives of many. (Including me, age 9 or so.)
At the same time, those MIT hackers formed a company and set out to... well, to make business software, if you look at those early plans. But they figured they'd first make a quick buck by porting Zork to home computers. However, MDL programs couldn't possibly run on an Apple 2 or a TRS-80. So the Infocom folks sat down and designed the Z-machine.
I'm not going to go through this story in depth. For that, I recommend Jimmy Maher's overview at the Digital Antiquarian. Here's the quickie: Infocom would write a game in ZIL, or "Zork Implementation Language" -- a high-level language derived from MDL. A compiler called ZILCH would then compile the game into a binary format.
The binary format, Z-code, was a program for an imaginary computer called the Z-machine. (Today we would say "virtual machine".) Nobody intended to build a Z-machine. But they could write a program that emulated the Z-machine. This program, called ZIP, was compact enough to run on a 16-bit home computer. So Infocom could distribute ZIP and the Z-code file on a floppy disk (or cassette tape!) and thus sell a playable game.
ZIL is not a mystery. We haven't had a lot of ZIL code available before this week. But someone scanned an Infocom ZIL manual years ago. You can read that manual here. (It's dated 1989, and primarily written by Steve Meretzky -- "SEM".)
But what kind of language is ZIL?
Above I said it was "derived from MDL". This is no surprise; the Infocom people wanted to reuse as much of MDL Zork as possible in their new commercial product. The resemblance is obvious, and indeed some of ZIL Zork was nearly identical to MDL Zork. Here's a function from the combat implementation in MDL Zork:
<COND (<G=? .OD 0>
<SET OD <MIN .OD 2>>
<==? <2 .WV> <PRSI>>>
<SET OD <MAX 1 <- .OD <3 .WV>>>>)>)>
And here's the same code from the ZIL version:
<COND (<NOT <L? .OD 0>>
<COND (<G? .OD 2> <SET OD 2>)>
<COND (<L? .TMP 1> <SET TMP 1>)>
<SET OD .TMP>)>)>
Pretty similar, right? But under the surface, rather different things are going on.
MDL is a functional language in the Lisp vein. Pretty much everything boils down to linked lists. Executing a program means freely constructing and throwing away lists, so there must be a garbage collector behind the scenes. The MDL compiler does what it can to eliminate memory allocation; efficient MDL code might be compiled to static machine code. But if the compiler can't do that, you wind up allocating stuff on the heap.
But the Z-machine doesn't have a garbage collector. It has no primitive operations for constructing lists or allocating objects. There are no Z-machine instructions for finding the head and tail of a list. (The famous car and cdr primitives of Lisp, called 1 and REST in MDL. The Z-machine don't have 'em.)
(You may know that I wrote a small Lisp interpreter for the Z-machine. It was fun, but the Z-machine gave me no help at all! I had to build the Lisp heap and list data structures myself, out of primitive Z-machine byte arrays. Same with the garbage collector. It's all terribly inefficient and janky.)
So how does ZIL perform these operations? Answer: it doesn't! As far as I can tell, the ZIL Zork code doesn't use Lisp-style (linked) lists at all. The 1, NTH, and REST functions appear only rarely, and I believe they always apply to static strings or arrays. MAPF, a basic Lisp tool which transforms one list into another, doesn't appear at all.
In contrast, the MDL source is filled with 1, NTH, REST, MAPF, and other functional-language constructs.
So in one sense, ZIL is a completely different language from MDL. It's a C-like compiled language which operates entirely on fixed data structures. But in another sense, as you can see from the examples above, they're almost identical! How does this make sense?
My answer is that game logic is a fairly narrow sort of programming. The combat example sets some local variables and looks up some object properties (fixed data structures!). It compares numbers; it compares variables to objects. And there's a bunch of "if" statements with "and"s and "or"s. Familiar, right? There are dozens of ad-hoc game scripting languages with similar features. You don't use a language like that to solve graph-theory problems, much less build a compiler.
(The Ancient Terror puzzle in Enchanter does involve some graph theory, but this is implemented with some rather clunky nested loops. Not a Lisp-y solution at all.)
It's not that functional methodology is impossible in ZIL. The language clearly imports as much of MDL's functional model as it can. It's just that this isn't very much. ZIL has about as much of MDL as can be compiled into static (non-allocating) code. Which makes sense -- that's exactly what the ZILCH compiler did.
To bring the story up to the present... In 1993, Graham Nelson released Inform. This language (and compiler) had exactly the same goal as ZIL: to efficiently compile source code into Z-machine files. Graham didn't have access to any information about ZIL at that point, so he just made up his own language, which was mostly like C because that's what he was familiar with.
(Of course C itself was designed to run efficiently on fixed data structures. So Graham had an easier job, in some sense. Not to take anything away from his accomplishment!)
Inform (up through version 6) became the cornerstone of the Z-machine ecosystem. But the Z-machine had some hard limits; it had been designed for 16-bit microcomputers and could not easily be expanded. So by 1997 there was a clear need for a new virtual machine. This is where I come into the picture. I designed Glulx as a replacement VM.
Amusingly (or ironically, or inevitably), Glulx had one core goal: to efficiently compile Inform 6 code to a new virtual machine. Every line of I6 code had to work essentially the same as it had before. Glulx used 32-bit values instead of 16-bit values, and I reorganized the memory layout and the instruction table. But the core data structures looked very much like those of the Z-machine.
As a result, it should be possible to compile ZIL to Glulx! I don't think anybody's done it. But Glulx was shaped by I6, I6 was shaped by the Z-machine, and the Z-machine and ZIL were shaped by each other. The chain of influence extends all the way from Joel Berez's coffee table to mine.
Inform 6 was followed by Inform 7, a completely new language which compiles to Inform 6 source code. At least for now. Future versions may compile to a new abstraction. But that's a story for another time.
Footnote: my conclusions about ZIL have to be qualified: I could be wrong. I don't know ZIL or MDL, really. I have an MDL programming guide open as I write this...

Given the MDL and ZIL code examples above, I thought it was worth adding the Inform 6 equivalent. This is from Allen Garvin's hand-polished I6 port of the ZIL code.
[ VillainStrength oo villain od tmp ;
villain = oo-->0;
od = villain.strength;
if (od >= 0) {
if (villain == thief && Thief_engrossed) {
if (od > 2) {
od = 2;
Thief_engrossed = false;
if (second && second has weapon && oo-->1 == second) {
tmp = od - oo-->2;
if (tmp < 1) {
tmp = 1;
od = tmp;
return od;
If you check, this is line-by-line equivalent to the ZIL version above. But it's much more readable to modern eyes, isn't it?
To some degree, this is just because I6 is part of the C-derived family of languages. (I'm told that "Algol family" is a better term, but I've never touched Algol.) This includes C, C++, C#, Javascript, Perl, Swift... very different languages, but they all share the basic assumption that if (X) print(Y) is a sensible way to write code. A programmer these days might never have used any other kind of language.
I6 follows C very closely, in this example. The only quirks are:
  • the --> operator (for arrays, where C would have oo[0], oo[1], oo[2]);
  • the has operator (for testing object flags; in ZIL this was FSET?);
  • defining functions in square brackets, which is idiosyncratic.
Everything else is expressed in ways that look completely natural. Mind you, the lower-case text helps a lot. But we're very used to code where identifiers are text, operators are (mostly) punctuation, and one line of code is conventionally one abstract step of procedure.
In 1979, for people brought up on Lisp, MDL probably wasn't as strange. No doubt they would say that it's much simpler to put the operator at the beginning of every call (<SET OD .TMP> rather than od = tmp;). Test operators always end with ?, whereas in the I6 code you have to look for an if to figure out whether you're performing a test. The difference between period and comma as atom prefixes is no doubt a concise way to express something (which I haven't bothered to look up what it is). And so on.
I still think the lower-case code is easier on the eyes, but hey.

EDIT-ADD 2: Tim Anderson has kindly sent along a lot of details about MDL -- or Muddle, as I should be calling it. I include his comments verbatim below.
A few comments on Muddle, ZIL, and their friends:
Although the original PDP-10 Zork was written in Muddle, it was, unintentionally, much closer to ZIL (which didn't exist yet, obviously) than it had to be. There were a few reasons for this:
  • Lisp-ish languages were, by outsiders, thought to be inherently slow, so it was a point of pride to write code (and build a tool chain) that disproved this. (There was a benchmark done with some math-heavy computation where compiled Maclisp was faster than FORTRAN, on the same hardware.) A lot of things in the Zork code were there at least in part because of this.
  • The basic objects (rooms and so on) were not lists, they were vectors (or perhaps templates; the difference was slight)--each object was a block of contiguous memory, much like a C struct. Quicker access to the elements, smaller memory footprint, and--much closer to the data structures you'd find in C, or ZIL.
  • There was a lot of effort put into not provoking the garbage collector (No consing, please, this is Lisp!). The Muddle garbage collector, when it ran (there was a lot of innovation in garbage collection later, but this was 1977), just stopped processing for a while, made a clean, compact copy of the heap, replaced the old one with that, and let you continue. This could take several CPU seconds, which on a time-sharing system could turn into a really long long time--very bad for interactive game play. In addition: the machine being used had a 256K word address space, with 512K of physical memory, and was supporting 10, sometimes 20 users. Keeping the memory footprint down was a good way to keep your friends: as much as possible of the code was in read-only memory--allowing it to be shared between processes, and ensuring that there was a clean separation later on, in ZIL. And avoiding dynamic memory allocation reduced the really significant load produced by the garbage collector.
  • As Jesse mentions in the comment about macros, they provided full access to the Muddle interpreter at compile time, and were certainly used in the original Zork as well as later on. The only memory saving produced by compilation was the elimination of macro expansion at runtime (in Muddle, as in Lisp, a call to a macro would be evaluated twice: first to run the macro, which returned some freshly consed-up code, then to evaluate that; the compiler did the first step at compile time, then compiled the result). Muddle, like Lisp, had as its basic function EVAL, which ran the interpreter on a single piece of uncompiled code. Zork never called that--slow, prone to unexpected consing, and so on. So it didn't get in the way when moving to ZIL (or to FORTRAN); everything that was running in Zork was compiled, which limited the bad (inefficient, difficult to port) things that Muddle supported in the interpreter.
  • Each Muddle atom could have two values--a global, and a local (,FOO was syntactic sugar for <GVAL FOO>; .FOO, <LVAL FOO>). Locals, as with Lisp, had dynamic scope--in interpreted code, functions called from within an invocation of MYFUNC could access any locals bound within MYFUNC (assuming that no intervening function had another binding of them, of course). In compiled Muddle, though, local variables that needed to be accessed from outside the function itself had to be declared SPECIAL; any other locals ended up having, in effect, static scope within the body of the defining function. Zork used no specials: it made for faster, and, honestly, more understandable code. And also made it easier to port to statically-scoped languages.
  • The Muddle compiler acquired some intrinsics to allow direct (single machine instruction) access to the key parser output variables PRSA, PRSO, and PRSI. This was a different way of thinking about things, and again required a bit more discipline.
  • It was unnecessary to declare the type of anything in Muddle, but that would make the compiler's job much harder, and reduce performance. So pretty much every variable, and every field in the Zork objects, had a type declaration associated with it. Faster code, but also easier to port to a language without dynamic types.
  • MAPF (or its friend, MAPR--map First vs. map Rest) was probably used in Zork somewhere, but not in the most general form, where it constructed a new list; rather, it was an easy way to iterate over a list. In that form, it would be relatively easy, if it came to that (I don't think it did), for Zilch to do something sensible, or even to write a macro that would construct the iteration at compile time.
The virtual machine used for Cornerstone was quite a bit more powerful than the Z machine. There were a few reasons for that:
  • It was required. A nearly-relational database, with what passed for a GUI in those days, had need of a lot more functionality than a text adventure.
  • The minimal target hardware was something like a PC-AT (maybe an XT): hard drive, 640K of memory, etc. There was no need to run on an Apple II or a Commodore 64.
  • Infocom had a fair amount of experience with these things by then.
  • Not to be invidious, but the people building the tool chain for Cornerstone were better at that kind of development (years of experience, and it was their primary job--not true with ZIL, except for the people building the individual Z machine implementations) than those defining ZIL and the Z machine. They weren't as good at writing games, though, so it worked out.
(-- Tim Anderson)

April 16, 2019

Renga in Blue

All the Infocom Source Code is Available, and Other Recent News

by Jason Dyer at April 16, 2019 06:41 PM

This morning, a few minutes past midnight, Jason Scott of the Internet Archive dropped a Github full of the original source code to most of the original Infocom text adventure games. (As of 4 hours ago, all of the Infocom text adventure games except for Quarterstaff, which was a Mac-only game not having anything to do with the Infocom Z-machine.)

Included are the unpublished games Restaurant at the End of the Universe (the sequel to Hitchhiker’s Guide the Galaxy), The Abyss (based, it looks like, on the movie), and Checkpoint (a predecessor to Border Zone).

Github link to all the source code

It’s all written in ZIL, which is sort of a mutant form of LISP. More information on ZIL can be found here.

Screenshot from The Abyss running in Frotz.

Related to the above news, Ahab over at The Data Driven Gamer has posted an analysis comparing the variation in text across different versions of Zork I across the years.


After four years of labor the folks at inkle have released Heaven’s Vault.

It could be described as a history-em-up game where you wander the universe translating an ancient language. It’s currently out on PC and PS4 and will have Mac and iOS releases later this year.

Vasilis came out yesterday and is based on events in Ukraine from 2014.

Finally, Enrique over at Datalexic published an analysis of all the Twine games released to the IFComp and Spring Thing competitions, with automatic clustering by structural features. (Via @emshort).

Emily Short

Mailbag: Academic literature on modeling conversations

by Emily Short at April 16, 2019 12:40 PM

hello :) I was reading some of your stuff about conversation systems, was wondering if you’d have any links/pointers to academic literature on modelling conversations (can be more theoretical/non-game-related), or stuff relevant to people who might be trying to do it?

This one came in via Twitter. I’ve covered some adjacent topics before on mailbag, including

  • Games that do complex conversational mechanics
  • Dialogue and story generation techniques (Parts 1, 2, 3)
  • Dialogue filtering to apply personality and emotion to existing text — this includes links to some academic research into how personality traits affect people’s utterances
  • And back in 2009 I wrote this on conversational analysis and how it applied to my work at the time, including going through a number of dialogue situations recorded in literature and talking about how the conversation model I was using at the time would address or fail to address those

But this question is asking something a little different, specifically about how conversation is modeled in the abstract, not necessarily in games and not necessarily for AI production purposes. What academic literature is out there to help us understand how people talk to one another? What types of approaches exist for modeling conversation in general?

Unsurprisingly, this is a huge field of study, so this is not remotely a literature review; instead, it’s a tour of a few pieces of terminology and resources that might be useful in digging deeper.

Also, I am not approaching it primarily from the perspective of a trained linguist (I’ve taken a few classes, but it’s not my field) and instead from the perspective of a person trying to model things for interactive conversation purposes.

So, with those caveats:

The Cooperative Principle

This refers to the idea, explored by Grice, that conversation can happen only because the participants are cooperating towards a common goal of mutual understanding. Grice advances four further maxims that govern how people are supposed to communicate in order to achieve cooperation, though these are also highly culturally determined. A lot of specific behavior in conversation can be explained in terms of how it corresponds to Gricean maxims.


Stephen C. Levinson’s book Pragmatics is getting older now — I got my copy in the mid-90s as part of a college linguistics course — but it covers a lot of ground. Its Amazon blurb doubles as a description of the field of linguistic pragmatics in general:

Those aspects of language use that are crucial to an understanding of language as a system, and especially to an understanding of meaning, are the acknowledged concern of linguistic pragmatics. This textbook provides a lucid and integrative analysis of the central topics in pragmatics – deixis, implicature, presupposition, speech acts, and conversational structure.

A search for “pragmatics” on Amazon turns up several other, more recent sourcebooks and textbook overviews of the field; I don’t own all of these myself so can’t speak to their relative value. They tend not to be cheap, so maybe something to get from a library unless you happen to have a large budget for linguistics textbooks.

I do also have the Routledge Applied Linguistics book Pragmatics: An Advanced Resource Book for Students, which is more recent, and which takes on some of the cultural and contextual aspects of pragmatics. It’s pretty readable and accessible, with short but concept-rich chapters on topics from how to collect research data to the more sociological aspects of pragmatics study (the Introduction), then follows up with excerpted readings from key writing (the Extension) and a large references section to guide the reader into the academic literature.

Where this most excites me is where it picks up topics that were less discussed in earlier pragmatics writing in my experience. To again quote the blurb:

examines the social and cultural contexts in which pragmatics occurs, such as in cross-cultural pragmatics (silence, indirectness, forms of address, cultural scripts) and pragmatics and power (the courtroom, police interaction, political interviews and doctor-patient communication)

…which is the sort of linguistics-meets-social-circumstance topic that I find completely fascinating and could read about for weeks whether or not I had any legitimate game application.

The Routledge book does come with a supporting website as well, where you can read some of their guidance about where to find corpora of existing conversational data, and how to make use of it, along with quite a bit of other supporting material. Reading through the website here may give a sense of what the book is covering and whether it’s likely to be relevant to you.

Historical pragmatics studies how conversations have worked in the past, based on what we can recover or guess from literature or other materials. Edinburgh University Press has a series that includes some coverage of historical pragmatics, though here again I haven’t surveyed all the texts in question.

Harvey Sacks‘ work on conversational analysis is considered foundational, but I have only read excerpts.


Semantics is the study of how signs relate to meaning. (Charles Morris divided semiotics up into syntax, semantics, and pragmatics, and the terms continue to be used in linguistics, though they’ve accrued additional meaning, the division between semantics and pragmatics is not always perfectly defined.)

Semantics covers a lot of territory, up to and including “what does this word mean in this context” (in NLP, the word-sense disambiguation problem). Some of this might not seem to be conversation modeling as such, though we need many of these techniques if we’re going to try make sense of a conversation in progress.

However, semantics would also be where we would look for models of how an argument might play out in conversation, and approaches such as Montague grammar exist to try to convert utterances into formal logical propositions.

In some of the Versu experiments — more those written by Richard Evans than the ones by me, though I also dabbled in this — we played with philosophical debate models in which characters would advance statements as part of a logically rigorous argument. (Several of my experiments in this line quickly veered away from the logical again at least as a character motivation, so that characters would enter into an argument on the side of the person they had a crush on, for instance.)


Paralanguage refers to the aspects of communication aside from the words themselves. For spoken language, that might be pitch, volume, prosody; the presence of disfluencies such as “um”s and slurring, and one fairly often sees discussions of paralinguistics that focus particularly on those areas. “Paralinguistic respiration” refers to gasps, sighs, and other breathing noises that signal extra information.

The Routledge Pragmatics book linked above gets into questions like how intonation affects the social meaning of ritualized utterances, so that “thank you” or “sorry” are spoken in many contexts, but it’s the tone of delivery that determines whether this is to be understood as sincere. (Unit A9 of that book.)

However, paralinguistic considerations also apply to text-only conversations such as chat, and to other kinds of written communication — for instance, a texter’s decision to avoid punctuation and standard caps is in some communication channels a sign of friendly informality.

In inbound speech, paralinguistic cues are often better than the words themselves at indicating the mood of the speaker: the same literal text might be friendly, angry, or sarcastic depending on the mode of delivery. Research challenges in this space may ask participants to tell the emotional affect of the speaker based on audio qualities.

Generating paralinguistically convincing output is one of the main challenges for text-to-speech synthesis. There are markup languages (SSML being the most common) for marking speech in order to instruct a text-to-speech system about how to deliver something — but adding that markup can be a lot of work unless you have a system that will do a good job of it procedurally. And generating a voice model that will convincingly shift between “angry”, “happy”, or “sad” in generated output is also challenging.

Computational Paralinguistics covers this field in detail; unfortunately it is ferociously expensive.


Topic modeling seeks to identify what topic(s) are present in a source text. Often this is applied to larger sources than a few lines of dialogue — processing lots of documents and figuring out in general what they seem to be about — but in conversation, we might want to identify and model what is currently being discussed. Most of my own earliest work building conversation models for games focused on working with an awareness of topic (what have we discussed before, what are we talking about now, and how do topics relate).

I was also interested in how a character might choose to move to a new topic, or how they might interpret questions to keep their answers as much as possible part of a flow with previous dialogue. Galatea contained a rudimentary tree of nested topics and would prefer to traverse that tree by small rather than large amounts when answering questions. That was all hand-authored. Nowadays, especially since the development of word2vec and related approaches, there are more computational methods for determining or expressing proximity of concepts and allowing conversational agents to prefer nearby ideas over distant ones.

Dialog Acts

A dialog (or dialogue) act is an action within a conversational context that serves a particular purpose: to question, to request, to give information, and so on.

The concept is arguably a subset of the concept of speech acts. The idea of speech acts goes some way back in the history of linguistics — look for the works of Austin and Searle if you want to trace this back. The concept originated with theory around “performatives” like “I now pronounce you man and wife” or “I bet you five dollars that horse will win,” where the statement does not have truth value precisely and is instead changing something in the world by being spoken. A lot of the theory proposed around speech acts is now itself considered a bit old-fashioned and open to criticism.

However, “dialogue acts” refer more tightly to the function of words or phrases in a flow of dialogue, and this idea is used in conversation modeling studies even where the broader philosophy around speech acts is not especially helpful.

Dialogue Act Modeling for Automatic Tagging and Recognition of Conversational Speech (A Stolcke et al, 2000) provides a computational linguistics approach to recognizing dialogue acts. The article also tabulates the dialogue acts found in the Switchboard corpus, and gives a good sense of the granularity of the types of actions under consideration here. For instance, the article talks about statements, questions, and requests, but also about back-channeling to signal comprehension while someone is talking (“Uh-huh”), hedging (“I’m not sure, but…”), appreciation (“I can imagine!”), and a number of other similar acts.

Dan Jurafsky’s chapter Pragmatics and Computational Linguistics follows on Stolcke (even replicating some of its tables), but provides more of a literature review of the surrounding field as well. Additional corpus references here from the Air Travel Information System dataset.

Dialogue acts are interesting from a narrative characterization perspective because they tend to reflect speaker personality, preferences, and relationship to the person listening.

Direct and Indirect Dialogue/Speech Acts

Another useful idea, especially for natural language understanding, is the distinction between direct and indirect speech acts. Direct acts mean exactly what they say; indirect acts require some level of inference from the listener. For instance, all of the following are (at least potentially) requests despite their different sentence types:

  • Pass me another slice of cake. (Imperative)
  • Would you please cut me some more cake? (Interrogative, focused on the doer)
  • Could I please have another slice of cake? (Interrogative, permission-seeking)
  • I would love another slice of cake. (Statement)
  • Oh look at that, I’m already out of cake! (Statement)
  • I do love chocolate. (Statement)
  • wordless, melancholy stare at empty plate (Nonverbal performance)

Which of these we choose often depends on politeness and formality register, the relative social status of the people involved, and how much confidence we have that the person listening will understand us correctly. Gricean maxims offer some leverage on this problem, since (by the maxim of relevance) you would presumably not mention your love of chocolate unless it had some bearing on the current situation, and I can then guess what your point might be.

For (quite a lot) more on the reasoning behind identifying and interpreting indirect speech acts, see “Indirect Speech Acts”, Asher and Lascarides, 2006.

When speaking to a conversational partner that we know is not a fluent speaker, not a member of our own culture, or (increasingly relevant) not human, we tend to be more direct in order to avoid misunderstandings. This is one of several points that tends to distinguish corpora of recorded dialogue between humans, and corpora that collect people’s interactions with chatbots.

In some cultures, being too direct is very rude; in others, being too indirect is considered annoying — which brings us on to the next area:

Politeness Theory and Facework

Politeness theory addresses how people act courteously to each other, while “facework” refers to the idea of “saving face” or preserving the other person’s face. Another aspect of politeness theory explores the challenge of avoiding imposition on others (negative politeness) and of expressing gratitude and positive affinity (positive politeness).

Stephen Levinson was again a major contributor to the academic field, along with Penelope Brown, with their book Politeness: Some universals in language usage.

Computational approaches to this area include studies where a large corpus of text has been human-annotated as “polite” or “not polite”, and then a supervised learning approach trained a classifier to determine the politeness of subsequent data.

As is often the case with social content, it turns out that the features marking something as polite tend to be fairly specific to the context of communication and to the medium. At one point I experimentally trained some classifiers with data from the Stanford NLP politeness corpus referenced in this paper, which comes from user comments on Wikipedia and StackExchange. I found that they tended to be pretty inaccurate for conversational dialogue because they were attuned to the nuances of typed punctuation. Meanwhile, the word “homework” was treated as a major rudeness marker, because in the corpus it appeared mostly in the context of irritated StackExchange users telling others off for trying to use the site to do their homework for them.

Status Play

This is from Keith Johnstone’s work on improv, rather than from linguistics texts. The essential idea is that, in conversation, people are constantly sending cues about their relative status, and whether they consider themselves to be higher or lower status than the person they are talking to.

Some status play moves in fact might consist of dialogue acts: hedging, for instance, might suggest low confidence and low status. Other status-related actions might come from tone of voice or other markers in the domain of paralinguistics.

The idea relates to politeness theory and face-saving, but provides some categories that I find especially useful for digging into narrative conflict moments between characters.

Zarf Updates

All of Infocom's game source code

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at April 16, 2019 05:12 AM

I can just leave that statement there, right? I don't have to elaborate? Jason describes it better than I could, anyhow:
So, Infocom source code is now uploaded to Github. Most people don't speak or want to speak the language it's written in, ZIL (Zork Implementation Language). You can browse through it and kind of suss out what's being done when and the choices made over the course of time.
In cases where the source code had multiple revisions, and I don't know the story of what revisions came when and came why, I did a reasonable job of layering them out (this came before that, that came after that) and doing multiple "check-ins" of the code so you can see diffs.
Often, there are cases that some games were built up from a previous game, allowing modification of the macros and structures and then making them work in the new game. For example, an NPC partygoer in one game was a thief in a previous one. Dungeons become stores, etc.
--@textfiles (Jason Scott), from a twitter thread
This material has been kicking around for a while now. If you search for articles about "the Infocom drive", you'll see some discussion from years past. Actually, don't do that, it's mostly old arguments that don't need to be rehashed.
The point is that a great deal of historical information about Infocom has been preserved -- but it's not publicly archived. You can't go research it anywhere. Nobody admits to having it, because it's "proprietary IP", and you're not supposed to trade in that stuff because companies like Activision make the rules.
So when Jason puts this information online, he's taking a stance. The stance is: history matters. Copyright is a balance between the rights of the owner to profit and the rights of the public to investigate, discuss, and increase the sphere of culture. Sometimes the balance needs a kick.
Quite possibly all these repositories will be served with takedown requests tomorrow. I'm downloading local copies for myself tonight, just in case.
One other note: Jason's comments say "...there is currently no known way to compile the source code in this repository into a final "Z-machine Interpreter Program" (ZIP) file." This is somewhat out of date. There are long-standing open-source efforts to build a ZIL compiler. ZILF is the most advanced one that I know of. I don't know whether it's rated to compile this historical ZIL code -- but I'm sure that people are already giving it a shot.

Renga in Blue

Star Trek: 25th Anniversary (1992)

by Jason Dyer at April 16, 2019 03:40 AM

It’s been a while since I’ve pulled a game from my Innovation 13 list — in fact, I’ve only done it once so far with The Colonel’s Bequest — so I reckon I’m due for another.

The Digital Antiquarian just happened to write about this game, so if you’d like another perspective, there you go. I’m going in totally blind, so I’m avoiding reading that article until I finish.

What I have played is the sequel, Star Trek: Judgment Rites. I’ve always wanted to play the first game since I enjoyed the second, which had a particular innovation I don’t recall being done much elsewhere.

To explain the innovation I’m thinking of, I’m going to make a big digression, back to 75 years ago.

June 14, 1944: an explosion southeast of London marks a new phase in the terror bombings of World War II. Before, bombs had to be dropped by a plane with a human flying it, but now Germany could send the V1 flying bomb, aka “the world’s first guided missile”.

There was a catch: the Nazis had no idea where their flying bombs were landing. They were aimed at the London city center, but most fell a few miles south.

They attempted to gather eyewitness accounts to adjust their aim, but fortunately, the British intelligence game was on point, and the British had the capability to feed false information as to where the V1s were landing.

With this came opportunity, and a dilemma.

Since the Nazis had no idea where the bombs landed, the British could make something up … that sent their aim even farther off. If they were told the bombs were falling too far to the north then the bombs would start falling even farther away from the city center, and away from a major part of the population.

However, south London also had people in it, and by adjusting the Nazi aim from one target to another, it was potentially putting people at risk who wouldn’t have been before.

In other words, it’s close to a real-life equivalent of the famous Trolley Problem.

Original problem by Phillipa Foot, drawing by Jesse Prinz.

It also might be considered a rich and complex game dilemma: not one with a good choice or an evil choice, but without a clear right answer, with potential ambiguity and agony and drama.

However, there’s an aspect that most games seem to miss–

Someone had to think up the plan to redirect the missiles in the first place.

In other words, there wasn’t a prepackaged set of two multiple choice options; doing the “right thing” included needing to know there was an option there to even choose from.

The two Star Trek games by Interplay are divided episodically, where each episode is self-contained enough to avoid combinatorial explosion. You are given a score based on amount-you-followed-Federation-ideals when playing; ex: don’t randomly shoot aliens if you can help it. Sometimes there will be a dilemma where you *can* shoot past aliens to solve a particular puzzle. Maybe there’s another way? But if there is, you have to come up with a plan an enact it, there isn’t a morality button you can just press to do the right thing. Perhaps sometimes there *isn’t* another way.

For example, early in 25th Anniversary there’s a scene where some Klingons appear. After some delay, they start shooting. You can shoot them back to get by. Was there a “peaceful” way? You find out after the scene the “Klingons” aren’t really Klingons at all, but … robots? Does that knowledge mean the earlier action of “just shoot” was correct? I don’t even know yet if this even has an alternate solution, and it’s the first thing that happened to me in the game upon arriving on a planet.

I’ll start giving the play-by-play detail next time on the first episode, “Demon World”.

Oh, to finish the WWII story. The plan did go ahead, although the result was ambiguous. Quoting from the first chapter of Would You Kill the Fat Man?:

The success of the operation is contested by historians. The British intelligence agency, MI5, destroyed the false reports dispatched by Garbo and ZigZag, recognizing that, were they ever to come to light, the residents of south London might not take kindly to being used in this way. However, the Nazis never improved their aim. And a scientific adviser with a stiff upper lip, who promoted the operation even though his parents and his old school were in south London (“I knew that neither my parents nor the school would have had it otherwise”), estimated it may have saved as many as 10,000 lives.

April 15, 2019

Emily Short

Mid-April Link Assortment

by Mort Short at April 15, 2019 06:40 PM



odphmbjbolppopab.jpgApril 16 is the next meeting of the People’s Republic of IF in Cambridge.

April 27 I will be at GameFest 2019 in Albany, NY, speaking about narrative design in games and other media.
April 27 is also the next Baltimore/DC Area IF Meetup; discussing Castle, Forest, Island, Sea, and Cragne Manor.
May 4 is the next San Francisco Bay Area IF Meetup, at the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment.
May 10 I am speaking at the 10-Year Anniversary Event for State of Play, in Dublin, Ireland.

May 14 is the deadline for submitting short papers to the IEEE Conference on Games (CoG).  The conference itself will be August 20-23 in London.


May 22, the London IF Meetup hears from Chris Gardiner about the narrative direction of Sunless Skies — how the Failbetter team set a course for their content, how they developed it, and how/when they chose to course-correct.

The 2nd International Summer School on AI and Games will be held in New York City, May 27-31.  The event is organized by Georgios N. Yannakakis and Julian Togelius, who wrote the Artificial Intelligence and Games book.  More info can be found at the site.

Narrascope is set for June 14-16 in Boston, MA.  This is a new games conference that will support interactive narrative, adventure games, and interactive fiction by bringing together writers, developers, and players.  More information can be found on NarraScope’s home site.

ICCC 2019 takes place on June 17-21 in Charlotte, NC.  The event is in its tenth year and is organized by the Association for Computational Creativity.

Articles and Podcasts

Screen Shot 2019-04-15 at 8.41.30 AM.pngThe Story Fix carries an interview about the creation of Star Wars-themed choose your destiny stories.

The Narrative Innovation Showcase from GDC 2019 is now available as free content, if you’d like to see short talks on a number of interesting narrative design and interactive storytelling solutions.

Not a single article but a whole website: Can I Play That? is a site dedicated to reviewing games for their accessibility, including “how I play” articles about accessibility adaptations (such as using voice recognition to play games whose usual controllers would cause RSI problems for the player). There’s also an ongoing series of deaf game reviews.


Heaven’s Vault is out as of April 16, and will be available on Steam.


Spring Thing is now open, if you missed that announcement. There are a whole bunch of new works to play, both choice-based and parser-based.

The festival will be open until May 6, so plenty of time remains to survey this year’s offerings. For those interested, a few impressions can be found on the intfiction board here, here, and here.

Also worth a look is the new interactive fiction Lies and Cigars by Katherine Morayati, written as a commission for Now Play This.

Orihaus has publicly shared the hypertext tool used in some of their past work:



Wharton (yes, the business school) is hiring an interactive fiction coder to help with an educational narrative project. This is a full-time job with benefits.


sub-Q Magazine

Failing Forward

by Bruno Dias at April 15, 2019 05:41 PM

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is out at last and so I’m thinking again about the perennial theme of FromSoftware’s loosely-connected Souls series: Failure.

Failure is part of life, and it’s an ingrained feature of storytelling. Writing-101-type story structures often incorporate some aspect of failure: heroes make mistakes or are set back by their inability to deal with adversity, before ultimately moving on.

Failure has always been a tricky subject to approach in game narratives. Games often introduce the possibility of failure on the part of the player, and then have to figure out how that will play out narratively.

After all, if the player makes a mistake, it may be ascribed to the player character if the player recovers and keeps playing rather than rewinding to an earlier save. This alignment of failure can feel consonant or dissonant, and it’s important to think about the tone of failure in your game. Is the player failing to live up to their character? Are the player and character learning together through trial-and-error? Is player error a sly joke, a pratfall played off with physical humor? All of those have been done successfully.

Of course, the same questions exist from the other end of the screen. What about character failures that are not driven by player error? After all, almost any interesting story will contain some element of setback or failure to it. Some games might find that tonal arc in their systems and mechanics, hoping to tune their difficulty such that players will experience that cycle of failure and success. But some games might not emphasize or care about player skill, and instead lean on different forms of interaction.

In a visual novel, for example, you might not want a skill component to the game. In a choice-based narrative, asking a player to make the “right choice” without some underlying system or methodology that players can learn to use will feel like a guessing game. We usually don’t write branching narrative to test the player in this way, but given a traditional character arc, we do need to write points of failure for the character. How do we square those two?

It’s easy to fall into a trap of suggesting to a player that they did something wrong. We do so much to make the player believe that their choices have significant outcomes for the characters in the story; when those characters face a bad turn, how do we make this a satisfying narrative beat and not an invitation to reload a save? And in games that do have a skill component or some mechanical aspect that allows for failure (such as an action game or an RPG with random rolls), how can we think about failure in more narratively rich ways?

Failing forward – A common term in tabletop RPG design, “failing forward” means the general principle that all failures must advance the story; you can’t fail in a way that halts the plot or imply invites a retry. This is also a common principle employed in gamebooks, visual novels, and other choice-based stories; you are guaranteed forward plot movement and interesting developments whether or not you succeed. In a tabletop game, this principle is employed to encourage risk-taking and prevent stalls. In a single-player narrative experience, it encourages living with failure and letting player errors fold into the ongoing narrative. It’s also closely tied to…

Watching things burn – This is where Sunless Skies lives a lot of the time. If your failure branches bring the player a gruesome, perverse pleasure; if the player character breaks open like a cross-sectioned cake, showing his interior to the world in the process; if the player can be made to feel more as an agent of chaos than of a particular agenda… then there might not really be such a thing as failure. Failing forward gives your player safety to do risky (or even reckless) things; the related principle of entertaining fires means that players are rewarded for going there. Interactive comedy can get a lot of mileage out of those ideas.

Choosing your poison – This is a more serious approach that is found in a lot of Choice of Games pieces. Here, we look less at failure so much as paying a heavy price. We give the player multiple priorities and ask them to juggle; when they drop a ball, it’s the ball they chose to let go of.

As always, those are a starting point to think about the issue: Failure is a fact of storytelling (and life). And so it’s also another lens through which to look at the sewing together of mechanics, structure, presentation, and story.


The post Failing Forward appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

Hounds & Heroes: Control, Closure, and Exploration in Games

by Sharang Biswas at April 15, 2019 05:41 PM

Games fetishize heroes.

Traditionally, games devote their attention to the Hero and the details of their epic quest. We players, bloodhounds slavering for plot, fixate on this Hero. We tear into them, inhabit them, and through their agency, we exert change on an authored world.

Killing is often involved. (The bloodhound metaphor still holds.)

* * *
Like many fantasy tabletop roleplaying games, Laura Simpson’s A Companion’s Tale [1] tells the story of an Epic Hero struggling against a Major Problem. In defiance of the genre, however, this hero is volatile, self-contradictory, and unpredictable. This is because no player ever controls the hero directly. Rather, the hero is refracted through the stories and memories of various side characters and NPCs that the players embody. Instead of authoring the action, players’ characters witness it, commenting on the history, culture, and geography of the make-believe world as they do so. Instead of hounds, they’re bees, gathering sensory details from an expansive land, bringing it together for the collective hive to make sense of it all.

* * *
But can we make sense of it all? Do disparate, fragmented scenes make up a whole story? Scott McCloud definitely thinks so. In Understanding Comics, he talks about “non-sequitur transitions” between images, or the close positioning of images that have seemingly no relation to each other [2]. He writes:

“No matter how dissimilar one image may be to another, there is a kind of alchemy at work in the space between panels which can help us find meaning and resonance in even the most jarring combinations. Such transitions may not make ‘sense’ in any traditional way, but still a relationship of some sort will inevitably develop. By creating a sequence with two or more images, we are endowing them with a single overriding identity, and forcing the viewer to consider them as a whole.” [2]

The linear juxtaposition of images forces us to assign meaning to this juxtaposition, a meaning that is greater than the sum of the individual images.

While McCloud is talking about images on the page of a comic book, it isn’t hard to make the conceptual leap to images in your imagination. Because humans operate in linear time, our stories are consumed in a specific linear order. Be they spurred by the interpersonal storytelling of a tabletop RPG or the prose of a piece of interactive fiction, the linear juxtaposition of images forces us to assign meaning to this juxtaposition, a meaning that is greater than the sum of the individual images.

Interactive fiction, in its various forms, can uniquely take advantage of this fact. By allowing players to determine which portions of the story to consume, interactive fiction assigns an alchemy of meaning unique to each player, informed by their choices (or perceived choices, as I mentioned in my last essay [3]).

* * *
In Failbetter Games’ text-based videogame Fallen London, players take on the role of an escaped prisoner exploring and making a name for themselves in the titular city [4]. Unlike regular London, however, the Victorian city of Fallen London was kidnapped by bats and brought underground decades ago. Now the city is populated by devils trading in brass, socialites addicted to hallucinogenic honey, spirit traffickers looking to make an illicit buck, and all manner of peculiar denizens. While you do advance your character, gaining various forms of currency, increasing your skills, earning titles and strange artefacts, it is these denizens and the peculiar city they inhabit that form the heart of the game. Yes, you focus on your hero—though your actions are, more often than not, far from heroic—but you position yourself in relation to the setting, rather than, as in many hero stories, above or outside of it. You play through hundreds of small storylets, most arising either randomly or depending on your in-game location. You traipse through the game, picking out stories that interest you, that you wish to enter, or that you stumble upon. You are birds, plucking stories from a curious world to line your nest, your own, cozy narrative.

* * *

Rather than tell a singular hero’s journey along a predefined path, the branches and detours of a piece of interactive fiction allow for a more meandering, exploratory experience.

Interactive fiction offers to players a rich means of exploring a world. Rather than tell a singular hero’s journey along a predefined path, the branches and detours of a piece of interactive fiction allow for a more meandering, exploratory experience, where the setting, the side characters, and the environments take center stage. Stories are often told through their environments, after all [5].

Not all these paths need be fully mapped. McCloud also talks about “closure” or the mind’s ability to fill in the gaps of a story, even when the eyes cannot see it [2]. Allowing players to come to their own conclusions, to create their own links between parts of the story is its own alchemy. In order to make sense of two elements juxtaposed in a “jarring combination,” the mind must build a bridge spanning the occluded areas and be forced to create story where none is visible. Reading such a piece of interactive fiction, thus, becomes an even more creative act.

With the growing ubiquity of game design tools, especially in interactive fiction, I’m heartened by the unconventional stories independent designers are telling. Rather than tales of bloodshed and conquest, we’re seeing more games that make use of these affordances that interactive fiction gives us to create stories of wonder and exploration, of learning about others worlds and other people. Hounds no longer, we metamorphose into bees, into birds, into graceful, flying things that soar to the upper atmosphere of human imagination, and then out further still.

Works Cited

[1] L. Simpson, A Companion’s Tale, Sweet Potato Press, 2018.

[2] S. McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, New York: HarperPerennial, 1994.

[3] S. Biswas, “Rituals, Cheating, and The Dream of Possibility,” sub-Q, February 2019.

[4] C. G. J. C. O. W. Alexis Kennedy, Fallen London, Failbetter Games, 2009.

[5] S. Biswas, “Videogames and Art of Spatial Storytelling,” Kill Screen, 1 March 2016.

Sharang Biswas

Sharang Biswas is an award-winning game designer, an internationally exhibited artist, and a published writer based in New York. He has exhibited work at numerous museums, galleries, and art fairs including the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, and the Toronto Reference Library. He has designed curricula for the Museum of the Moving Image, created learning games for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and written about games, interactivity, and culture for publications including Kill Screen, Sub Q, ZAM and First-Person Scholar. His two food-based games, “Feast” and “Verdure”, have garnered numerous accolades, including an IndieCade Award and and IGDN Indie Groundbreaker Award. Sharang has lectured or taught courses on game design at various universities and cultural institutions including Dartmouth, Columbia Teacher’s College, New York University, The International Center of Photography, and the Museum of the Moving Image, as well as spoken at conferences such as Game Devs of Color, GaymerX, Living Games, IndieCade and Boston FIG Talks.

Sharang holds a bachelor’s in Biotechnology and Biochemical Engineering from Dartmouth College and a master’s in Interactive Design from Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. He is the Experience Designer for The Medici Group, a consulting firm focusing on diversity and innovation.

You can find him on Twitter @SharangBiswas, his website , or on his Itch IO page

The post Hounds & Heroes: Control, Closure, and Exploration in Games appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

April 11, 2019


Storytron Sprint 2019 Update

by Bill Maya at April 11, 2019 11:42 AM

A Disney “Sweatbox” Session


I came out of the Storytron Winter 2018 Update with a lot of optimism. Based on my list of SWAT enhancements, bug fixes, and related tasks I had high expectations and hopes for this release.

Since then there have been some “spirited” discussions on the Storytron Google Group and we’ve acquired a few more patrons, but work on my initial list, which I’ve revisited several times, has not met my expectations.

SWAT v1.2

This release of SWAT contains only minor bug fixes and enhancements.

I fixed one bug where selecting Cancel in the Open dialog would quit the application instead of just closing the dialog window if a storyworld was already open.

I also deleted the Protagonist operator from the OperatorsList XML file and tested all the storyworlds in the storyworld repository with this change (using the Protagonist operator in your storyworld would have caused an error at run time).

I also modified the starter storyworld that is used when selecting File > New to include the three default personality traits.

  • Bad_Good
  • False_Honest
  • Timid_Dominant

The old defaults of Quiet_Chatty and Cool_Volatile are still there as well since I didn’t want to get rid of them until I was sure their removal wouldn’t affect other parts of the program adversely.

I have been working on another bug but haven’t fixed it at this time. This bug had to do with the loading of personality traits from the a second storyworld without clearing out the first storyworld’s personality traits. This bug results in either a combination of both storyworld traits into the second storyworld or an exception error being thrown when displaying the Actor editor (or both).

There is a SWAT JAR file for version 1.2 that can be downloaded here for those of you who want to experiment with the SWAT editor but don’t want to install Eclipse and build the editor from source code (a copy of the entire storyworlds repository is included with the JAR).

New Repositories

There are three new repositories that have been created in the Storytron GitHub (thank you Chris Crawford for the source code).


Encounter Editor v1.01 is the encounter editor that Chris wrote for Siboot. If you don’t want to build it from source you can download the compiled application and the manual here (just the manual is also available as well at the previous link).


Encounter Editor v3.11 looks like a modification of Encounter Editor v1.01 but I don’t know what purpose it serves. At first I thought it might be the Sappho encounter editor that Chris was working on but I’ve also got the source code for that (but no data file). Maybe Chris can shed some light on the purpose of this editor in the comments.


Face Editor is the tool that Chris Crawford created to create dynamic faces for Siboot. It runs but it doesn’t handle smaller screens very well.


While I am personally disappointed that I haven’t made more progress on my 2018 list, the downtime has given me time to think about what might be best for Storytron to move it forward.

The original goal of Storytron was to kick start an interactive storytelling revolution. That didn’t happen. While people might have understood the concepts behind Storytronics only a handful of people ever attempted to build a storyworld of any substance.

Coming back to SWAT after a nine year hiatus I forgot about the significant level of mental effort required to weave storyworld elements together into a dramatic whole. And I realized that the current tool is currently inadequate to provide what it promises.

I think redesigning screens, tinkering with user interface elements, and porting the engine right now is premature. I think my part-time work could be better spent on these four areas

  • Create a new tutorial storyworld and wiki
  • Integrate some form of the Encounter Editor into SWAT
  • Integrate some form of the Face Editor into SWAT
  • Rewrite the engine to make it cross platform.

Creating A Tutorial Storyworld

I’ve gone back and forth in my mind over the past months about what type of tutorial storyworld to create.

At first I thought I would just do a quick port of Teen Talk, the iOS game that I ported from Chris Crawford’s 2012 Java re-imagining of his 1983 Gossip game.

But this idea didn’t generate much personal enthusiasm. Yes, it was social, with the goal being to become the most popular person after a certain number of turns, but the verb web was pretty limited. Here is what you could do in that game.

  • You could choose a schoolmate to call
  • You could say to the callee how you felt about another one of your schoolmates
  • You could find out from the callee how they felt about that same schoolmate
  • You would find out from the callee how that schoolmate felt about you
  • Hangup, rinse, and repeat.

The situation was pretty non-dramatic, more of a sketch than a storyworld. Honestly, I found it pretty boring.

Then it occurred to me to create a storyworld loosely based on Jane Austen’s novel Pride & Prejudice (probably after I read about a card game called Marrying Mr. Darcy).

The idea appealed to me for a couple of reasons.

Here was a situation that was social but possibly offering a verb web of a bit more complexity.

The sisters could talk among themselves and converse with suitors with the ultimate goal of finding an ideal match. There could be events like teas, luncheons, and dances that could affect the dramatic flow of the storyworld. At first glance it seemed like the perfect dovetail of interactive storytelling and audience.

The Regency England period also seems a nice fit for “people not things” games and over they years has attracted quite a few people working in interactive storytelling.

In the non-computer world there is the aforementioned card game, a Pride & Prejudice board game, and numerous movie adaptations.

This was also the same approach that I took back in 2009–2010 when I was creating Siboot for Storytron. I took an existing dramatic situation/story and adapted it for a new medium. That way I could learn the technology without having to worry about coming up with something new and unique.

But as I thought more about the idea I began to have second thoughts.

First, the idea, while appropriate, just didn’t appeal to me. I could do my research and reading and come up with dramatic situations for this setting but that seemed like it would take more time than I want to spend.

Also, I don’t think in its present format SWAT is able to create a compelling storyworld in any setting. Right now it can’t even reproduce the experience found in 1987 version of Trust & Betrayal: The Legacy of Siboot. Maybe if we had integrated encounters and dynamic faces the experience would be more dramatic but with the current tools you are limited to kludgy workarounds for encounters and dynamic faces are not even possible.

My next thought was to revisit an idea I had from 2016 and model a political debate between candidates for the presidency of the United States (probably seeing my copy of the card game The Contender: The Game of Presidential Debate cast my thoughts back in this direction).

Here was something that captured my interest and lent itself to prescribed social interactions — moderators asked the candidates questions, candidates answered those question, either prevaricating or attacked the other candidates, and the audience reacted.

It could be implemented with multiple characters on a single stage with some Fate-related verbs to keep things moving behind the scenes.

I thought about this for awhile and the more I thought about it the more I came to realize that this idea also wasn’t the best way to teach Storytron basics. Given that I only have part time to work on this I didn’t want to spend nine months to a year working on a storyworld that was not suited for the task at hand. So I set this idea aside for a later time.

So I’ve come back full circle and decided to port Teen Talk to Storytron under the name of “gossip”. It’s not perfect but I think it will serve as a first step in providing concrete examples of Storytronic concepts, show authors how the individual pieces are assembled into a Storytronic storyworld, and provide something for other people to build on.

Gossip Verb Web

For this tutorial storyworld I’ve created a new repository called gossip. There’s a companion wiki in this repository that will walk an author through the process of creating this very basic conversational storyworld (the wiki is currently empty but I imagine it will eventually contain five to ten lessons).

This conversational storyworld will be created using SWAT version 1.2

I’m telling everyone up front that this storyworld won’t be dramatic. The original game wasn’t dramatic. The goal is merely to show people how to start building storyworlds.

The goal is to have the tutorial storyworld and wiki ready three months from now in time for the next update.

Encounter Editor Integration

This task will be integrating some sort of encounter editor into SWAT. It might be based on the code that Chris Crawford has provided.

At this point I don’t know what it will look like or how it will integrate into the rest of the verb web. I initially thought that encounter verbs should be tightly coupled to the rest of the verb web but now I think that they should be an entity unto themselves.

I think I might be able to get an encounter editor integrated into SWAT 1.2 by the end of the 2019.

SWAT with an integrated encounter editor will be version 2.0.

Face Editor Integration

The third step will be to integrate a face editor into SWAT that allows the dynamic display of actor emotions.

When I write “dynamic” I don’t know whether the faces will be a series of static graphic images swapped in or out based on traits or something more animated like Chris Crawford was attempting with his re-imagining of Siboot.

No due date for getting a face editor integrated into SWAT 2.0 but it would be nice to have something in the first half of 2020.

SWAT with an integrated face editor will be version 3.0.

As the encounter and face editors are integrated into SWAT I’ll update the tutorial storyworld and add additional lessons to the wiki tutorial.

Engine Rewrite

For the engine rewrite there will probably need to be some experiments to determine which language, Kotlin or JavaScript, is the best way going forward. Beyond that I don’t have much more detail. No due dates for an engine rewrite.

Final Thoughts

Between these major releases of SWAT there will probably be point releases that contain bug fixes, unit tests, code refactoring, and, yes, maybe even some minor changes to the user interface. But I’m not promising anything on this front and a lot will depend on the community of developers.

For anyone who disagrees with the roadmap that I’ve laid out I’ve got just two words — open source. If you want to see a specific user interface or editor change then fork the repository, make and test your changes, and submit a pull request. I will happily include any changes that don’t break the code.

Storytron Sprint 2019 Update was originally published in Storytron on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Emily Short

Spring Thing 2019

by Emily Short at April 11, 2019 01:40 AM

Screen Shot 2019-04-05 at 2.06.35 AM.png

Spring Thing 2019 is now open. The second-biggest regular competition of the interactive fiction calendar, this year it has 20ish games including both choice-based and parser-based work, some experimental and some more classic in style. I haven’t had time to play nearly all of them, but here are a few I’ve had a chance to look at so far:

ballroom_cover.jpgLiza Daly has for several years been working with her own custom Windrift system, which produces lovely and typographically pleasing browser stories like Stone Harbor and Harmonia.

The Ballroom is a piece in this system where you can tweak certain details of the story in order to mutate it towards being a different story entirely. What starts as a disappointing anecdote in the life of an impoverished Regency miss can turn in other, rather startling directions as you alter your protagonist’s clothing and social choices, and the rest of the scene changes in consequence. Initially that stays within the Austenesque world, but it soon starts genre-hopping.

There is a logic of world features that persist through significant changes of genre and tone, that reminded me in some ways of Dual Transform or Invisible Parties. And the way you have access to the whole temporal sequence at once and can change the state of things earlier or later in the narrative as you choose, felt a bit Midnight. Swordfight. (though it’s definitely smaller than that work).

Meanwhile the player’s role in the game is not exactly protagonist or co-author — you don’t have enough control to really be responsible for the authorship of the story, but you’re also not straightforwardly a single person in the narrative, either.

darkness_schomay.jpgJeff Schomay’s Darkness is another experiment in a custom system, the ELM narrative engine. ELM is also link-based, and presents as a bit Twine-like, but there’s underlying state so that going back to old links and clicking them again can cause new effects later in the story.

It’s a pleasing idea, but I struggled with the execution, because I kept needing to scroll up more and more to find old links I wanted to re-click. There’s a sort of link inventory bar at the top of the page, but it only appears if you scroll up at least a bit; where it would perhaps be more ergonomic to have that bar near the bottom of the page and persistent. You might lose the sense of reviewing earlier text, but I feel like requiring the player to constantly scroll back up to interact is fighting the natural affordances of a web page. (All this talk about the system and nothing about the story, but this particular hook, “you are a person with no memory, in a location with no features,” is one that has long since lost its appeal for me, because it’s so common in interactive fiction and gives the reader so little to work with.)

Screen Shot 2019-04-07 at 12.21.17 PM.png

Porter Cave Adventure offers a Zork parody/pastiche with a few relatively straightforward puzzles. Every time you encounter a set-piece, though, there’s some quote from game theory writing to explain or illuminate what you’re up against. For the most part, I found this reasonably well implemented, though there were a couple of places where I needed to resort to the walkthrough in order to guess what verb to use or how to interact.

I imagine most players would either lack enough context to make sense of it (it really assumes you’re familiar already with Zork and with the conventions of IF gameplay, and probably with a bit of theoretical framework as well) or else find it a bit on the obvious side. According to the authorial comment, this was a final project in a game history course, and I think it does make the most sense as a piece created by a student to demonstrate back to the teacher that they’d been able to contextualize the readings from their course.

Writing Program Five riffs on the early days of computing, and the affordances of very old operating systems. It has more going on than initially meets the eye, and I was able to find some of it, only to promptly get stuck.

However, a tip from the part I succeeded in playing: if you find yourself just clicking the links forward looking for something to do, cut that out and pay more attention to the text of what’s there.

celia_swift.jpgThe Empty Chamber: A Celia Swift Mystery is a parser-based locked-room mystery, where you’re exploring just the contents of the room where the victim died. I haven’t completely solved this one either, but the section I’ve been through so far feels pleasingly solid in its implementation, with both a physical environment and a conversational space to explore, as well as additional characters to bring in. The mystery-in-period-British-setting aspects reminded me a bit of Christopher Huang’s parser-based mysteries.

When you reach a point where you think you understand what’s happened, you can type DEDUCE to answer some questions about the murderer, time of death, location of death, and so on. If your first crack at this is unsuccessful, the game will offer you the option of hearing how many of your guesses were correct, for replay purposes.

See also:

April 10, 2019

Renga in Blue

Trek Adventure: Finished!

by Jason Dyer at April 10, 2019 04:40 PM

If the parser was just a little bit better and the game was a tiny bit less cheap with “pockets” I might consider this a 1980 classic. It has, at least, a nice set piece for a finale.

From the Star Trek Annual 1980 comic book collection.

First, to get the hardcore stuff out of the way: I stubbornly wanted to continue using the OSI version, but I ran across two broken lines of code while playing. I’m guessing the file got corrupted, because they were character swaps, but if you’re actually planning on playing the OSI version, you need to replace these lines before starting.

570 IFS>7THENIF(L(S-7)=0)THENL(S-7)=L:C=C1:GOTO9
860 IFL=23ORL=1THENP(23,3)=-10:P(10,4)=-23:Z=0:GOTO9

The code above is also a pain to type because the OSI keyboard does not match a modern one. I highly recommend just using the C64 version (link to play online).

To recap from last time: I was left in an abandoned Enterprise, trying to get to the engine to replace a broken valve. I hadn’t made much progress but suspected I was stuck on a small thing.

Indeed I was. In the gym there is a locker with UNIFORMS and SHOES. I picked up both and valiantly tried to wear them and LOOK at them to no use.

If you LOOK AT UNIFORMS while they are still in the room you will get something different happen:

Do you see it? Yes, the room location now has POCKETS.


OPEN POCKETS yielded an ID BADGE, which let me get at two areas: the parts storage — which had the replacement valve I needed for the engine — and the armory — which contained a phaser and a kligat. [1]

What’s a kligat, you ask? Allow a redshirt to demonstrate:

Via Imgur.

Space ninja stars, fun! Also not helpful for my predicament. On the other hand, the phaser let me blast all the closed doors. This included the ones I thought were permanently jammed — they just led to adjoining rooms, although it was still a nice touch. So I now had full access to the second floor of the map without having to clamber around a ventilation system:

It was time to try to fix the engine. This required going into the shuttlecraft bay and using a spacesuit, since the bay was exposed to the vacuum of space.

So far, so good: PUT SPACESUIT to put it on. [2]

Then I opened the door, entered the bay, tried to GO OUT whereupon I floated away and tumbled into space. Whoops.

I also found out that the oxygen in the spacesuit runs out very quickly. So any actions had to be fast. It took me about 4 runs to figure things out, and each time I was very tense. (There are no saved games or save states so I had to repeat my steps to get to that point every time.) Here was where I had the strongest feeling of being in an actual Trek episode.

The Original Series never had any magnetic boots, but some of the later series and movies did, like this scene from Star Trek: First Contact where Worf does combat in zero-gravity.

After a bit of fussing I realized the LOCKER in the bay had some magnetic boots and another (fresh) spacesuit. Actually going through the process of putting on the low-oxygen spacesuit, retrieving the locker materials, going back to the turbolift, resealing the door, and removing the spacesuit right before dying felt very dramatic. [3]

The new spacesuit fortunately seemed to have infinite oxygen, so I was able to get all the relevant materials together, including wearing the magnetic boots and new spacesuit, and step outside for a repair …

… only to try to open the hatch leading to the broken valve and be told “THEY’RE PHILLIPS SCREWS!”

Argh! (Double Argh, because you can turn a Philips screw with a flathead — just not the other way around.)

At this point I resorted to a walkthrough, which told me that Bob Retelle really likes pockets. If you LOOK SPACESUIT it becomes a “spacesuit with pockets” and then you can LOOK POCKET to find a PHILLIPS SCREWDRIVER.

That was the last difficulty — it was just a matter of REPLACE VALVE [4], heading back in the Enterprise, resealing the shuttlecraft, and going to the auxilary control.

One last observation: while this game had many red herrings (in addition to the screwdriver fake-out there was a flashlight, wrench, and hammer that never got used) they really were necessary for the atmosphere. The Cabin, for instance, only has one necessary item (the pillow, which keeps the valve from cracking when you set it down) …

You ARE–

You Can See-
Saurian BRANDY

… but it would feel out-of-place and sterile without the brandy and mirror there, especially since the minimalist style means no room descriptions.


You Can See-
rerutnaevdA ydraH A
YDNARB nairuaS

Next up, another Star Trek game, one that you may have encountered recently on another blog.

Also, there is a Part 6 of the Before Adventure series coming, but it’s going to take a little longer to arrange than the other 5. I promise it will be worth the wait.

[1] The “PR” verb I was wondering about last time was short for PRESENT — you can PRESENT BADGE as a method of getting by the security places, but it maps as a synonym for DROP.

[2] I got used to the weirdness of using PUT rather than WEAR — I assume the game means PUT ON, and you can even type PUT ON SPACESUIT and the game will be fine — but every single time I used SUIT first instead of SPACESUIT. It’s interesting how games can easily “train” you to do certain odd things easily while other behaviors are almost perversely ingrained.

[3] It would help if it didn’t get undercut by REMOVE SPACESUIT by default referring to the one being carried, not the one being worn, which is how I racked up another death.

[4] I guess “RE” wasn’t “READ” after all. REPLACE at least was hinted as a word in an early message, but you had to have remembered the exact wording for it to count as a hint.

April 09, 2019

Emily Short

Choice Poetics (Peter Mawhorter)

by Emily Short at April 09, 2019 10:40 PM

Peter Mawhorter is an academic who looks at how choices work in interactive narrative, elaborating a theory of choice poetics. His articles offer some taxonomies and vocabulary for talking about choice design — with partial, not complete, overlap with IF community terminology for these topics — and he has built a system that procedurally generates new choices from scratch.

In this post, I’m looking at three of his articles and offering some thoughts of my own, but all three are linked and accessible without a paywall, so if you find this interesting you can read the originals. This is part of a series in which I’m looking at academic approaches to interactive fiction and related topics.

Towards a Theory of Choice Poetics (Peter Mawhorter et al) sets the stage for later work and argues that there is a field here worth looking at. As the title would suggest (“Towards…”), he’s not advancing a completed theory himself here, but pointing out some of the factors that would go into such a theory. The article is thus mostly a set of annotated lists: of player motives in choosing options in a game; of play styles; of choice structure styles, as defined by the outcomes of the choice; and “dimensions of player experience”, which I found at once the most interesting and most slippery of his groupings.

He is careful always to point out that these category lists aren’t, and don’t expect to be, complete.

He starts by anatomizing choices, breaking them down into framing (what comes before the choice and helps us understand what it’s going to be); the choice option texts themselves; and outcomes. Relatively straightforward so far — but I’ve seen some breakdowns of choice that don’t look enough at the framing of choice, so it’s useful to have that called out.

screen shot 2019-01-13 at 10.51.49 pm

Next, the article looks at reasons why the player might make a given choice, breaking these out into diegetic, semi-diegetic, and extra-diegetic motives. This split of reasons mostly correspond to a split between (in roleplaying parlance) in-character and out-of-character motives.

Choice types, meanwhile, include examples like “blind choice” (the infamous “go left or go right” choice where the player has no framing information to establish the stakes of the choice; “false choice,” where it looks like there’s going to be a branch in the narrative consequent on your action, but in fact there isn’t; “dead-end option,” which others might refer to as “instant death” because they bring the story to an immediate end; “dilemmas” as opposed to “flavor choices”; “unchoices” where you have only one option; and choices with delayed consequence, which he suggests is a deprecated design strategy. (Not by everyone: Choice of Games makes heavily use of delayed branching, but mediating that via stats.)

Finally, the player experience types. He identifies agency and influence (the latter being the player’s ability to affect story outcomes whether or not they know in advance what they’re doing — perceivable consequence, whether or not there’s any intention); autonomy, or the player’s ability to pursue their own goals within a game (and this one I think depends on factors that go well beyond the structure of individual choices); identification with the protagonist; transportation and absorption, which are subcategories of our old friend immersion; responsibility and regret, which relate to the idea of complicity.

Mawhorter’s ultimate goal in all this is to understand the structure of choices well enough to autogenerate them towards particular effects — but even if that procedural approach doesn’t appeal to you, it’s interesting to look at the categories he’s outlining.


“Choice Poetics by Example” (downloadable from Research Gate) builds on that earlier work by applying Mawhorter’s analytical tools to two specific examples: Undertale and Papers, Please.  This is a longer and more detailed article, and I will not attempt to exhaustively summarize it here; indeed, many portions of it are devoted to formally mapping out different options in these games and how they correspond to potential player goals and styles of play.

That’s not to say it’s without interesting conclusions. Mawhorter observes choices that have multiple expected outcomes, some good and some bad, together with different levels of certainty about what the player can expect:

This comparison thus illustrates exactly how Papers, Please (and governments) can manufacture complicity: by introducing doubts about the motives of strangers while emphasizing the certainty of outcomes for loved ones, a dilemma that clearly warrants serious moral concern can be transformed into an uneven choice where multiple avenues of justification are available. (12)

Admittedly — and indeed Mawhorter does admit this — his conclusions line up pretty well with existing critical analysis of these works. But, he suggests, having a formal method that uncovers those points provides more tools of understanding.

Personally, I found this paper most interesting when it was grappling with situations where choice outcomes were uncertain, and how players reacted to facing that uncertainty. There are a lot of ways to heighten or collapse uncertainty around particular choices, based on both framing and user interface.

For instance, I found myself contrasting the ambiguous situations outlined in Papers, Please with the typical branching options in Fallen London, where the player is explicitly told how likely it is that a given attempt will succeed:

FL screenshot.jpg

Phrases like “A chancy challenge for your Persuasive quality” quantify the uncertainty the player is facing. In the early game, typically it’s possible for the player to grind other tasks and improve their stats in order to reduce that uncertainty before going ahead. That isn’t always the case in some of FL’s later content, where story arcs are longer and more coherent, and the player may reach situations where they can’t back out of a choice and return to it later. So those later scenes often provide a better example of high-stakes situations with significant uncertainty about outcomes.

Of course, there’s a difference between uncertainty whether an attempt will succeed (modeled here in Fallen London and in various other systems), and uncertainty about what success means, which is closer to the situation in Papers, Please. In the latter case, the player is choosing whether to assist certain people without being certain whether those people are genuinely refugees.

FL might in that sense be more analogous (in a way) with Undertale, where the player might or might not have the gameplay skills to execute a particular strategy. Mawhorter explicitly declines to consider the player’s knowledge of their own skill as a factor when analyzing Undertale choice selections (7), but that factor would make some outcomes more and less likely on a per-player basis.

Choices that could be approached by players at different skill levels (whether that’s actual performative gameplay skill, or different levels in a stat) are choices whose likelihood of success will be more known to the player than to the author at the time of writing. If the player has the option to back away from a choice and come back later, these moments also allow for an extradiegetic decision on the player’s part: do I care enough about succeeding in this trial that I’m willing to go away and read a walkthrough, grind a stat, or practice my shooting skills before resuming? Conversely, committing to a high-risk choice at a high-stakes moment is, for some players, a way to play for maximum drama, and one might want the outcome text to reflect the nail-biting nature of that interaction.

The question of how players justify their own decisions is also worth digging into further. Mawhorter’s choice poetics taxonomy doesn’t account for reflective choices, or perhaps would relegate them to the category of “flavor choice.” But judicious use of reflective choices might help to collapse, or to clarify, the ambiguous rationalizations that players are using to explain their own unethical behavior in Papers, Please (at least according to Mawhorter’s analysis). (That might not be desirable, but it would be interesting from the point of view of Mawhorter’s theory to investigate how reflective choices function in this case. Do players feel more comfortable with their self-justifications, or less so, if they’re able to say explicitly what their goal was?


screen shot 2019-01-14 at 11.23.26 amThe more generative possibilities of Mawhorter’s choice poetics turn up in Generating Relaxed, Obvious, and Dilemma Choices with Dunyazad. Dunyazad is a system for creating choice clusters and texts, based on an understanding of what the player’s goals might be. In this case, it’s creating choice groups intended to fall into each of the three above categories (relaxed, obvious, and dilemma) which Mawhorter defines thus:

• For “obvious” choices, there should be exactly one option which “achieves” a goal and does not “fail” any, while no other option should “achieve” any goal, and all other options should at least “threaten” a goal.

• For “relaxed” choices, each option must at least “enable” or “achieve” a goal, and none may “threaten” or “fail” any goals. Additionally, the stakes should be low.

• For “dilemma” choices, all options should “threaten” if not “fail” a goal, and those goals should all have the same priority. No option should “achieve” any goal, and options that “enable” a goal must also “fail” some goal.

In order to set up the choices so that there’s clear information about goals and likely outcomes, Dunyazad is using a system where the player has RPG-style skills, those skills are specifically called out in the option text, and none of the option texts are called out to the player by particularly punchy writing or humor. Human-written option text often makes one of the options a punch line, and players tend to be drawn to those — but it is trickier to emulate that effect in a generative system like this.

Similarly, a lot of systems used for choice-based IF currently are quite a bit more ambiguous than this about what’s going on under the system: for instance, Choice of Games very much uses stats and potential failures similar to this, but the option text is rarely written to be that clear about which skill is being deployed. And, notably, Dunyazad’s output is all different in kind from the ambiguous choice-structuring that Mawhorter analyzed in Papers, Please.

Aside from its intrinsic interest, this article also provides a good survey of related experiments by other researchers in automatically generating choices in order to produce particular player experiences and outcomes. This includes a brief discussion of Yu, H., and Riedl, M. O. 2013, “Data-driven personalized drama management,” in which the player’s choices are being designed on the fly to maximize their appeal to this particular player.


A quick note on why we’re running NarraScope

by Andrew Plotkin at April 09, 2019 02:57 PM

Because I miss you all and want to see you.

Maybe that’s not the whole reason. (Maybe it’s just 27.5% of the reason.)

I’ve spent a lot of years in what I used to call “the interactive fiction community”. It was never the only such community. A lot of groups and traditions have grown up around the idea — ideas — of telling stories in the interactive arts. Sometimes we have conversations and exchange ideas; more often we don’t. There’s been a lot of border-drawing and definition-guarding. I’ve done it myself.

Some groups talk about adventure games; others about narrative games, story-games, interactive fiction, interactive narrative. Sometimes we talk about “text games”, and sometimes the games are wordless. Not everybody even thinks of themselves as creating games.

There’s a lot of diversity, is what I’m saying. But also a lot of commonality — perhaps unspoken or undiscovered. So, like we wrote on the front page: it’s time to bring those communities together.

We’ve had gathering points in the past, but they tend to be sideshows. Interactive narrative rates a mention at most game developer events, and also at many recent writing and literary conferences. But it’s just one of many topics. GDC has a “game narrative summit”, but of course GDC is enormous, expensive, and aimed at the needs of the biggest industry movers.

Recently, however, we’ve seen a few regional events which are entirely focused on narrative games. WordPlay in Toronto and AdventureX in London are our direct inspirations, and we’re grateful to them for blazing trails.

NarraScope is our attempt at such an event. We hope it will bring its own flavor to the party, and that flavor is: bringing communities together in conversation. IF or adventures or narrative games, visual novels or storygames or hypertext: what can we tell each other? What problem have you solved that I can learn from?

We hope that NarraScope will grow to become an indispensable annual gathering for everyone exploring interactive narrative. Come find out what the first one will be like.

And also, you know, to hang out. I’ll be there. I know a lot of my friends will be too. We’ll catch up.

sub-Q Magazine

Aisle: Twenty Years Later

by Anya Johanna DeNiro at April 09, 2019 01:41 PM

Aisle by Sam Barlow is one of the foundations of post-Infocom interactive fiction. This isn’t just from the impact on other one-move games, such as Pick Up the Phone Booth and Aisle (played for laughs), or Rematch (played for puzzles), or even more recent games like Midnight. Swordfight. that take the one-move conceit and expand upon the time frame elliptically. These games are all definitely using Aisle as a call back, and the one-move game that disrupts expectations can an important tool in the IF writer’s toolbox.

(And if you haven’t played Aisle before, do yourself a favor and give yourself twenty minutes or so to dig into it.)

No player, even in the most open sandbox world, can do everything they want. But here, in this shopping aisle—for one moment at least—there is freedom.

Aisle’s emotional core comes from the exhaustion of all possibilities. This is a root gameplay experience of parser games from the beginning—in a puzzle-based game, if you’re stuck, the hints recommend that, perhaps, you haven’t tried the right command. When this becomes an unpleasant, frustrating experience it becomes a “guess the verb” problem. But all parser games, to an extent, are guess the verb games, unless (in a version of minimalism on another axis), most of the commands themselves are stripped away. But in Aisle, this becomes a rich set of possibilities. Because it is one glimmering moment in time, one that can also stretch back into the past through memory recall, it invites the player to try everything. And it duly rewards the player with rich bits of story with seemingly throwaway commands (“jump” is particularly harrowing). By making Aisle so dense with story in its “default” responses, more elegantly than most games that have become before or after, it hints at the freedom of a gaming environment that is, by definition, about constraint. No player, even in the most open sandbox world, can do everything they want. But here, in this shopping aisle—for one moment at least—there is freedom.

Aside from the one-move conceit, I think Aisle also points towards a greater shift in design philosophy, in a much more expansive view of what interactive fiction could be. Almost in spite of itself, it is like an alternate-reality version of a mobile game before the entire architecture of mobile gaming was even invented. (Of course, interactive fiction was available on handheld platforms like the Palm Pad and the Apple Newton long before the iPhone.) While still a parser game, and the tactile sensation of typing in the various commands lends a lot to the context of each move (compared to clicking or touching a series of choices), the experience of time in the game feels similar to a game that you might play for a few minutes while waiting for the train—one in which you can get a complete experience.

The fact that this experience is deeply touching and emotionally reaving once the entire mosaic of Aisle’s protagonist comes into view is more an indictment of what mobile gaming has failed to become (with notable exceptions), rather than making Aisle seem dated or out of touch.


The post Aisle: Twenty Years Later appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

The People's Republic of IF

March meeting Post Mortem

by Angela Chang at April 09, 2019 08:41 AM

March 2019 PR-IF meeting

The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction convened on Thursday, March 20, 2019. Dan, doug,zarf, nickm, mike, and anjchang (not pictured) welcomed Kevin (@KevinSavetz from Eaten By A Grue Podcast of Portland, Oregon), Jaroslav Švelch (@raguklemenso, from Prague) , Martin Roberts (@martin_vm303, Emerson College) and Paul Hagstrom (@yesterbits).  Warning: what follows is probably not proper English, but just my log of notes from the meeting to jog people’s memories: Check out the photos

Forking paths
Antic Atari 8 bit podcast
Zarf essay on if in IF Theory Reader
GDC narrative talks overview
Different models of IF
Alternative modelsm not a branching tree

Doug. Galactic puzzle hunt, started Friday, 3 teams done so far
At least one gblorb game in there
Mystery hunt text adventures
Steven Lavelle on writing team

Baba is You has finally shipped
Text arrangements windows
Kevin has been taking part in Annual ten line basic programming contest
So we all started talking about codegolfing experiences:
Twifcomp Twitter if comp
Recreation of Jasper John flag painting 1 liner
Wastes by nick
Demoscene mentioned
Haiku by nick. The group then takes a look at feelies of Basho and Computer Games an dPoetry, including the Burma shave haiku. See the photos here!

Nick mentions that Steve Meretsky is trying to put together a genealogy about puzzle games in narrative games. The group starts throwing out mentions:
Dog star adventure trs80 first type iin
Adventures in videoland…first live action video game,David Lee bard
Night trap…Rob fullop Atari 2600
The first vs. the last
Fools errand …first meta puzzle narrative?
The prisoner….mishmash of ideas..uncaregorizable
Aaron Reed, hypertext part blends,
Robin Johnson
Afternoon, typein storyspace
Dan mentions…Autocinokete
Kings quest
The Hobbit
Mystery house first graphic
Reconstruction 1988 game First activist…1989 activistism
A mind forever voyaging… Political
Deja Vu (point and click)
E-men first expandable
Portal. Activision first database exploration
Sherlock Holmes
Curses. First non infoxom. Z Machine
Thomas dish amnexia
Cragne Manor. First 80 author work.
Flexible survival.. furry multiauthor?
Aisle… One move have
Trapped in a …One room game
+ equals 3
Lurking horror
Ditch day drifter
1984 Yugo high school
Hacker …
Wishbringer… Transforming map
Eliza… First computer character
Ractor. Conversational character
Masquerade…. Real world prize
Softtalk apple 2 magazine
First non puzzle if? Pictures an exhibition IF art show
Bill Maya Storytron project
.Chris Crawford’s .erasmatron

Spring thing intents for the end of the month

Zarf cranking away at implementing python in javascript
Dan parser libraries mention

anjchang recently gave a “intro to IF” to 12 computer science high school students at the Lexington Christian Academy. In 2 hours, they played Snack Time! together and then Shade and 9:05 in pairs. They also asked questions about how IF is written, some of them having played and created IF before this. saw Inform and Twine.

IFTF financial report and fundraising
Jaroslav mentions a project… Czech institute of contemporary history looking to make Czech interactive fiction works accessible
..Zarf suggests at Inform 6 nonenglish parsers
Sinclair spectrum. emulator
Keep content with modern platform
Videogames for humans
Immemory Chris Marker. First CD ROM project

Next meeting April will be Tuesday, April 16, 6:30 pm,

April 08, 2019

Renga in Blue

Trek Adventure (1980)

by Jason Dyer at April 08, 2019 11:40 PM

There were many Star Trek games before even 1980 (mostly simulations based on the 1971 mainframe game), but Trek Adventure by Bob Retelle is the first Star Trek text adventure.

From the June 1980 Aardvark newsletter.

This game also marks this blog’s first occurrence of the Ohio Scientific computer (or OSI), a computer so obscure that even though there is a category for it at Mobygames, it seems to have been linked to 0 entries (including the one for this game).

There does happen to be a lovely emulator for OSI computers which even has Trek Adventure as one of the games in the original package, so I gave it a try.

To clarify: you don’t play any of the main characters of Star Trek. You play a random crew member who has been left behind; perhaps you might even say YOU ARE THE REDSHIRT.

Ship severely damaged by freak Ion Storm-
Engines damaged-
Transporter out-
Abandoning ship in

I’ve been back and forth on whether this scenario is reasonable. The Enterprise has at minimum around 100 crew, and seems to have at least about 12 shuttlecraft, so it looks like there’d be room for everyone to evacuate at once. As far as the crew member being left behind, I suppose they were assumed dead.

The premise lets you wander around the ship without any of the pesky “characters” or “conversation” making things complicated for a coder trying to stuff a game into 8K of BASIC.

Many games of this era — like the Scott Adams ones — only recognized the first three letters of each word as a compactification method. With this game, only the first two letters of each command are recognized, which gets to the point of genuine confusion. Does the verb PU push or pull something? Does FI fix or fill? Is PR pry or … something else? Usually the game’s responses would be enough to infer what was going on, but the responses are often either “Can’t do it!”, a blank line, or “Does not compute!”

Most of the gameplay occurs on the “middle floor” of the Enterprise as shown above. The game tries hard to make things feel bigger than they are; there are quite a number of “jammed” doors but my suspicion is most don’t open. There’s a “ventilation” system you can climb into, but that consists of a single room where NORTH, SOUTH, EAST and WEST and loop back to the same room. Sometimes (at random, when “looping”) a DOWN exit appears and you can go down into any of the main rooms of the ship. (And again, I said “at random”: if you’re aiming for, say, Storage, you have to keep trying over and over until you land there.)

In Auxilary Control I found a message

Extremely FRAGILE
Magnatomic VALVE
On the Starboard ENGINES
is CRACKED! Starting
Engines will result in an Anti-Matter IMPLOSION

which strongly suggests the final goal of the game is to fix the ship.

There is a “parts storage” right next to engineering that has a replacement VALVE, but unfortunately, it is too big to get into the ventilation system so you have to get through the door the “regular” way. However, the door asks for an ID card which I don’t yet have.

There’s a third floor with just a shuttlecraft bay, but the game says I can’t get in there without a spacesuit because the room is depressurized. There’s a spacesuit in STORAGE next to the TRANSPORTER ROOM, but the only way to get into storage is via the ventilation system, and the spacesuit is too bulky to bring back through the ventilation system.

I’ve essentially made no progress otherwise, even though I suspect I’m missing something very small. The almost-no-responsiveness parser doesn’t help matters. I did work out PU was “PUT” (you can PUT SPACESUIT to put it on) but I’m still fuzzy on FI and PR. I also found (via brute force search) that BL corresponds with a verb, I’m guessing BLAST? … but I don’t really know. There’s also SH (for SHOOT I suppose) but I haven’t found a phaser yet — there’s an “Armory” in security that presumably has one, but it requires an ID card (just like the parts storage does).

Everything above makes the game sound like a bit of a mess — and it truly is — but I’m having more fun than you’d expect. I think this is because the subject matter manages to match vaguely enough to the real thing that it does “feel” like the Enterprise. I’m able to blast some Star Trek The Motion Picture music and get tingly retro-futuristic vibes. I imagine this is why people write fan fiction; it’s easy to paint a few broad strokes, rely on people’s rich memory of past stories, and get to the action.

Hopefully, a break will lead me to finish this by next time, although it looks like source code diving will be required.

April 07, 2019

"Interactive Licktion"

Spring Thing 2019: Writing Program Five

by Interactive Licktion at April 07, 2019 07:42 AM

Writing Program Five is a Twine game by Dan Cox. In this game, the protagonist and his/her friend, Sue, dedicate a large amount of time to the recovery of the titular Writing Program Five as a means of proving themselves worthy of a fund for software archive projects. As they progress, however, the program seems...Continue reading »

The People's Republic of IF

April meetup

by zarf at April 07, 2019 03:41 AM

The Boston IF meetup for April will be Tuesday, April 16, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233.

April 06, 2019

"Interactive Licktion"

Spring Thing 2019: The Ballroom

by Interactive Licktion at April 06, 2019 01:42 PM

The Ballroom is a Windrift game by Liza Daly. This is a mutable story, a story that uses the same overall framework or outline in narrating what is arguably an unchanging set of events, except in different contexts and perspectives. It is difficult, however, to state exactly what this common set of events is, because...Continue reading »

April 05, 2019

Renga in Blue

Before Adventure, Part 5: Wumpus 2 and 3

by Jason Dyer at April 05, 2019 10:40 PM

Wumpus 2 took the same mechanics as the first game and added some new cave layouts (including a “make your own” option). I tried each a few times to feel out if there were any gameplay differences. (I used this C64 version which seems to be accurate and bug-free.)

Cave 1 (Mobius Strip): Very easy: this is just essentially two rows

19-17-15-13-11- 9-7-5-3-1

although the 2 goes to 19, and the 1 goes to 20 — that’s the “half-twist” of the Mobius Strip.

It’s possible to get entirely blocked off, but it isn’t terribly common (imagine pits at 3 and 6, with bats at 13 and 12) and for the most part the easier-to-visualize geography also made it much faster to play.

I also noticed you don’t really need to know where the Wumpus is to get off a good shot, you just need to be next to it. For example, from actual gameplay:


I had just come from room 20, so I knew the Wumpus had to be in either 16 or 17. Based on the map, I could just shoot both of them.



ROOM #? 16
ROOM #? 15
ROOM #? 17

Just passing through a room is enough to shoot a Wumpus, so if it is in Room 16 you will be as successful as if it is room 17. With Cave 1 in particular this would work even if you didn’t know about any of the adjacent rooms beforehand, since you can pass your shot through 5 rooms:

That is, if you’re standing at 18 next to the Wumpus, a shot through 16, 15, 17, 19, and 20 will be guaranteed to hit the Wumpus.

Cave 2 (String of Beads): This one’s not a good map to play on, as one of my first attempts will illustrate:

The red indicates pits. The only thing to do here was to fire an arrow along the strip and hope I got lucky. This is a little different than the Minesweeper you-have-to-guess scenario where you start next to a pit — in that case it’s a gamble rather than a guaranteed death. Here, the map itself made for an impossible scenario overall, and one where it took some mapping beforehand to realize that fact. It felt like trying to solve a Sudoku puzzle only to realize part-way through the given numbers were placed wrong.

Cave 3 (Toroidal Hex Net): This one was very satisfying to play on, and had the same level of complexity and interconnectedness that the original dodecahedron map does. I also made a very satisfying 5-room-shot:

I had smelled the Wumpus from room 13, so knew it had to be in either 9 or 17. Moving around the other way, I got stopped at 3 by sensing bats nearby. The bats had to be in either 7 or 8. However, rather than trying another direction or gambling on the bats, I shot an arrow in the path

7 - 2 - 17 - 13 - 9

guaranteeing that I would hit the Wumpus no matter which room it was in.

Cave 4 (Dendrite): Easily the worst map of the set; it’s very common to be blocked off by just a single pit. Do not play.

Cave 5 (One Way Only): This one definitely gets some tangled looking maps if you go freestyle.

I eventually did the brute force method of copying the exact room numbers and exits from the source code. This let me look at a situation like


so given the knowledge that

3 goes to 2, 6, 7
4 goes to 3, 7, 8
5 goes to 8, 9, 12
6 goes to 5, 9, 10
7 goes to 6, 10, 11
8 goes to 7, 11, 12

it was possible to make a route that hits all three adjacent rooms with one arrow. (Specifically here, 3-7-6-5-8 works.)

The best strategy seems to be to increase the room number slowly and backtrack when possible. That way you are more likely to have rooms you’ve already been in or at least “scanned” as exits from the new room, so if there’s a pit or bat hazard it’s possible to avoid it by leaving for the “known safe room”. For example, suppose you’re at 6 with no hazards nearby in the adjacent rooms (5, 9, 10). Then you step back to room 5; with adjacent rooms (8, 9, 12) and a pit nearby. Since you didn’t sense a pit when the adjacent rooms were (5, 9, 10), that means 9 is safe and leads to escape.

This led to satisfying loops where “known territory” was revisited in avoiding hazards and gave a small sense of atmosphere.

From best to worst I’d rank the new caves as roughly

Cave 3-Cave 5-Cave 1-Cave 2-Cave 4

with the original Cave 0 tied for first. Really, the main issue with the problem caves was the generation of impossible scenarios; technically speaking there are only two absolute barriers (the pits) so a “good” map just needs to avoid “single chokepoint” situations.

Now that I’m an “expert” I suppose it’s time to up the ante:

From the article accompanying the Wumpus 2 code in Creative Computing.

Wumpus 3 returns to only having a dodecahedron layout. It was not written by Gregory himself but a “Howard” as mentioned in the article clipped above. Also, as implied, the code wasn’t published. Because of this, people have known about it but it has long been considered a “lost game”.

Fortunately, I found it in a special “Games” booklet that PCC put out in 1974.

As of right now you can play Wumpus 3, entirely in your browser.

(I’m still using DOS QBASIC, but after some tech hiccups I managed to compile the code. This has the fortunate side effect of making it easy to put a playable version online. I’ll give a similar treatment to Caves1 soon.)

The gimmicks here are:

1. “Tumareos” that eat your arrows.

2. All of the hazards (wumpus, pits, bats, tumareos) are capable of moving about the caves at random.

A sample of play:



In this case, I started with *all* the adjacent rooms containing a hazard. I decided the safest bet was to try to shoot an arrow into two of the rooms. The Wumpus moves to a random adjacent room if you miss a shot (meaning you have a 1/3 chance of dying if you’re next to it) but I already had the pit giving me a 1/3 chance of death on the first move, so I figured I’d rather take the 2/3 shot at victory first.

NO. OF ROOMS(1-5)? 4
ROOM #? 15
ROOM #? 16
ROOM #? 17
ROOM #? 7

Alas, I missed. But the fact I didn’t get eaten means the Wumpus was in Room #5.


This message means the bats moved. Note that there is no check to if they move to the player’s position, so it’s possible to just be minding your business and have bats swoop in and teleport you somewhere.


Now, the fact I’m not dead means that the Wumpus moved to either 1 and 4, which are the adjacent rooms from 5. Since they are both part of the “central pentagon” I could shoot at both of them.



NO. OF ROOMS(1-5)? 4
ROOM #? 1
ROOM #? 2
ROOM #? 3
ROOM #? 4

I gave Wumpus 3 a good number of tries, and I’m sad to say I agree with Gregory on this one: the game is a little too chaotic. The arrow-eaters are just a nuisance (I never had an arrow supply shortage even with them in the game) but the randomly moving obstacles mean you have more opportunities to get trapped in an unwinnable position or even just die arbitrarily when you have a hazard get moved to the room you’re standing in.

There’s a major difference between a set-up gamble that the player has to roll the dice on, and the game essentially telling you now is the time to die and you can’t do anything about it. (Even in the “bad caves” of Wumpus 2 where the player is essentially trapped, you can do some last-ditch arrows and hope you hit the Wumpus.) I can understand why there was no rush to get the game in print.

One more theoretical tangent before I let Wumpus go:

. . . even more importantly, Wumpus is a prototype version of the system of geography that is still with IF today: a set of discrete, self-contained rooms linked together by connectors the player can use to pass from one to another. Compass directions are not yet here, but the rest of the scheme is. Wumpus is all about mapping. The early IF games that would follow were continuing its tradition in being full of those twisty little passages that so frustrate modern players who try to go back to them today.
— Jimmy Maher, writing on Hunt the Wumpus

So Wumpus no longer has the distinction of being the first to put the player inside the Caves. Does it matter?

I guess it depends on what you mean by matter? As I’ve mentioned before, history is not a competition. Looking through every human achievement like there are Points attached can distort the true thread of influence. And besides, considering the Maher quote, the “prototype” idea is still perfectly accurate.

But more nebulously, it still feels like Hunt the Wumpus was the “first” of … something. I’ve played everything available before 1973 (it isn’t as long or as hard as you’d think, I wasn’t kidding when I said this era had “almost no computer games at all”) and there really is a spark of compact design in Wumpus that is unique. Rather than being a simulation of an experience seen elsewhere (a basketball game, the 19th century Oregon Trail, an episode of Star Trek) the possibility of computer games as a doorway into new worlds opened up in a way *orthogonal* to pre-existing media.

The Digital Antiquarian

Interplay Takes on Trek

by Jimmy Maher at April 05, 2019 04:41 PM

Original-series Star Trek is the only version I’ve ever been able to bring myself to care about. Yet this Star Trek I once cared about a great deal.

Doubtless like many of you of a similar age, I grew up with this 1960s incarnation of the show — the incarnation which its creator Gene Roddenberry so famously pitched to the CBS television network as Wagon Train to the Stars, the one which during my childhood was the only Star Trek extant. Three or four Saturdays per year, a local UHF television station would run a Star Trek marathon, featuring nine or ten episodes back to back, interspersed with interviews and other behind-the-scenes segments. Strange as it now sounds even to me in this era when vintage media far more obscure than Star Trek is instantly accessible at any time, these marathons were major events in my young life. I particularly loved the give and take on the bridge of the starship Enterprise during episodes such as “Balance of Terror,” which were heavily inspired by the naval battles of World War II. Upon realizing this, I became quite the little war monger for a while there, devouring every book and movie I could find on the subject. Even after it had slowly dawned on me that in the final reckoning the death and suffering brought on by war far outweigh any courage or glory it might engender, the fascination with history which had been thus awakened never died.

I loved the Star Trek movies of the 1980s as well. Young though I was, I recognized the poignancy inherent in watching the now middle-aged cast cram their increasingly substantial frames back into the confines of their Starfleet uniforms every couple of years. Yes, this made effortless fodder for the late-night comedians, but there was also a wry wisdom to these movies that one doesn’t usually find in such blockbuster fare, as the actors’ aging off-screen selves merged with their onscreen personas in a way we don’t often see in mainstream mass media. Think, for example, of the scene in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan where McCoy comes to visit Kirk and present him with his first pair of reading glasses. Decades before I fully understood what that moment — not to mention an expanding middle-aged waistline! — means in real life, I could sense the gravitas of the scene. I credit this side of Star Trek with showing me that there is as much drama and interest in ordinary life as there is in fantastic adventures in outer space. It primed me for the evening I begrudgingly opened Ethan Frome for my English class, and proceeded to devour it over the course of the next several rapt, tear-streaked hours. My English teacher was right, I realized; books without any spaceships or dragons in them really could be pretty darn great. Some years later, I took my bachelor degree in literature.

It must have been about the time I was discovering Ethan Frome that Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted on television. Like most of my peers, I was hugely excited by the prospect, and tuned in eagerly to the first episode. Yet I was disappointed by what I saw. The new incarnation of the Enterprise seemed cold and antiseptic in comparison to the old ship’s trusty physicality. Nor did I care for the new crew, who struck me as equally bland and bloodless. Being smart enough even at this tender age to recognize that fictional personalities, like real ones, need time to ripen and deepen, I gave the show another chance — repeatedly, over the course of years. But it continued to do nothing for me. Instead of Wagon Train to the Stars, this version struck me as Bureaucrats in Space.

All of this, I’ll freely admit, may have more to do with the fact that The Next Generation came along after I had passed science fiction’s golden age of twelve than anything else. Nevertheless, it does much to explain why I’m the perfect audience for our subject of today: the two Star Trek adventure games which Interplay made in the early 1990s. Throwbacks to the distant past of the franchise even when they were brand new, they continue to stand out from the pack today for their retro sensibilities. Fortunately, these are sensibilities which I unabashedly share.

Star Trek hadn’t been well-served by commercial computer games prior to the 1990s. Corporate nepotism had placed its digital-game rights in the slightly clueless hands of the book publisher Simon & Schuster, which was owned, like the show’s parent studio Paramount Pictures, by the media conglomerate known as Gulf and Western. The result had been a series of games that occasionally flirted with mediocrity but more typically fell short of even that standard. Even as each new Star Trek film topped the box-office charts, and even after Star Trek: The Next Generation became the most successful first-run series in the history of syndicated television, Simon & Schuster’s games somehow managed not to become hits. At decade’s end, Paramount granted the rights to a game based on the film Star Trek V: The Final Frontier to the dedicated computer-game publisher Mindscape, but the end product proved little better than what had come before in terms of quality or commercial success. Still, the switch to Mindscape did show that an inkling of awareness of the money all these half-assed Star Trek games were leaving on the table was dawning at last upon Paramount.

As the new decade began, the silver anniversary of the original series’s first broadcast on September 8, 1966, was beginning to loom large. Paramount decided to celebrate the occasion with something of a media blitz, anchored by a two-hour television special that would air in 1991 as close as possible to the show’s exact 25th anniversary. For the first time on this occasion, Paramount decided to make digital games into a concerted part of their media strategy rather than an afterthought. They signed a contract with the Japanese company Konami to make a game, entitled simply Star Trek: 25th Anniversary, for the Nintendo Entertainment System, the heart of the videogame mass market, and for the Nintendo Gameboy, the hot new handheld videogame system. Rather than the Next Generation crew or even the original Enterprise crew in their most recent, most rotund incarnations, these games were to wind the clock all the way back to those heady early days of 1966, when Captain Kirk was still happy to appear on camera with his shirt off.

That deal still left a space for an anniversary title in the computer-game market. Said market was, it was true, much smaller than the one for Nintendo games, but it was notable for its older, more well-heeled buyers willing to pay more money for more ambitious games. Yet computer-game publishers proved more reluctant to sign on for the project than the broad popularity of the Star Trek brand in general might lead one to believe.

It didn’t require the benefit of hindsight to see that the Star Trek franchise, although it was indeed more popular than ever before, was going through a period of transition in 1990. The Next Generation had been on the air for three seasons now and was heading into a fourth; it was thus about to exceed the on-air longevity of the series that had inspired it. Meanwhile the cast of that older series were bowing to the realities of age at last; it had been announced that Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, due for release in late 1991, was to be the last feature film in which they would star. A time when the Next Generation crew would become the default face of Star Trek, the original crew creaky anachronisms, was no longer impossible to imagine.

Given this passing of the torch that seemed to be in progress, most computer-game publishers were skeptical of Paramount’s plans for games featuring the original Enterprise and its crew in their youngest incarnations. They felt that this version of Star Trek was already all but dead in commercial terms, what with the success of all of the franchise’s more recent productions.

Brian Fargo of Interplay Entertainment was among the few who didn’t agree with this point of view. He pitched a computer game to Paramount that would share a name with Konami’s efforts, but would otherwise be a completely separate experience. Aided by his natural charm and the relative disinterest of most of Interplay’s competitors, he made the deal.

Disinterested competitors or no, it was quite a coup for his company, nowhere close to the largest or most prominent in its industry, to secure a license to make Star Trek games — especially given that the deal was made just months after Interplay had acquired the rights to another holy totem of nerd culture, The Lord of the Rings. While the Tolkien games would prove rather a disappointment, the Star Trek license would work out better all the way around.

Interplay signed an open-ended contract with Paramount which allowed them to make Star Trek games all the way until the year 2000, with some significant restrictions: they would be subject to the studio’s veto power over any and all of their aspects, and they could be set only in the time of Captain Kirk and company’s first five-year mission. With these restrictions in mind, Interplay set out to make a game that would be slavishly faithful to the original television series’s format. Instead of a single epic adventure, the game would consist of eight independent “episodes,” each roughly equivalent in plot complexity and geographic scope to those that had aired on television back in the day.

The structure of each episode would be the same: the Enterprise would be called upon by Starfleet to handle some new crisis at the episode’s beginning, whereupon the player would have to warp to the correct star system and engage in some action-oriented space combat, before beaming down to the real heart of the problem and sorting it all out in the guise of an adventure game. Interplay noted that the episodic format could make for a refreshing change from the norm in adventure games, being amenable to a more casual approach. Each episode would be designed to be completable in an evening; after finishing one of them, you could start on the episode that followed the next day, the next week, or the next month, without having to worry about all of the plot and puzzle threads you left dangling last time you played. From Fargo’s perspective, the episodic structure also had the advantage that each part of the game could be designed without much reference to or dependence on any of the others; this made things vastly easier from the standpoint of project management.

Fargo turned to a familiar source for the episodes’ scripts: Michael Stackpole, a member of the Arizona Flying Buffalo fraternity who had played a leading role on Interplay’s Wasteland CRPG and contributed to such other titles as Neuromancer. Stackpole had been busying himself recently with writing tie-in novels set in the universe of the BattleTech tabletop-game franchise. He thus thought that he knew what to expect from working with a licensed property, but he was unprepared for the degree of micromanagement that a bureaucratic giant like Paramount, stewarding one of the most valuable media properties of the age, was willing to engage in. He submitted scripts for fifteen episodes for a game that was anticipated to contain only eight, assuming that should surely cover all his bases; Interplay and Paramount could decide between themselves which eight they actually wanted to include.

To everyone’s shock, Paramount outright rejected all but a handful of them weeks later, usually for the most persnickety of reasons. Interplay’s frustration was still evident in a preview of the game published much later in Computer Gaming World magazine, which noted that “the film studio decided against plot elements derived from episodes which were already part of the Star Trek legend.” With Stackpole having returned to writing his novels, Fargo brought in Elizabeth Danforth, another Flying Buffalo alumnus who had worked with Interplay before, to write more episodes and shepherd them through the labyrinthine approval process.

All of this was happening during one of the most chaotic periods in Interplay’s history. Their distributor Mediagenic had just collapsed, defaulting on hundreds of thousands of dollars they had owed to Interplay and destroying the company’s precious pipeline to retail. The Lord of the Rings game, which was supposed to have been their savior, missed the Christmas 1990 buying season and, when it did finally ship early the following year, met with lukewarm reviews and disappointing sales. Only the strategy game Castles, an out-of-left-field hit from a third-party developer, kept them alive.

Amidst it all, the team making Star Trek: 25th Anniversary kept plugging away — but, inevitably, the game fell behind schedule. September of 1991 arrived, bringing with it the big television special and the Nintendo Entertainment System game, but Interplay’s own tie-in product remained far from complete. It didn’t ship until March of 1992, by which time all of the anniversary hoopla was in the past. Interplay’s game had all the trappings of an anticlimax; it really should have been known as Star Trek: 26th Anniversary, noted more than one commentator pointedly. For those inside the company, the story of the game was taking on some worrisome parallels to that of their Lord of the Rings title: a seeming surefire hit of a high-profile licensed game that arrived late and wound up underwhelming everyone.

They needn’t have worried. Star Trek: 25th Anniversary was a much more polished, more fully realized evocation of its source material than The Lord of the Rings had been, and it came at one of the Star Trek franchise’s high-water marks in popularity. Star Trek VI, which had hit theaters just three months before Interplay’s game, had become everything one could have hoped for from the original crew’s valedictory lap, garnering generally stellar reviews and impressive box-office receipts. Meanwhile The Next Generation was now in its fifth season on television and more popular than ever. The only shadow over proceedings was the death of Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, on October 24, 1991. Yet even that event was more help than hindrance to the Interplay game’s commercial prospects, in that it created an appetite among wistful fans to look back to the franchise’s beginnings.

Interplay dedicated Star Trek: 25th Anniversary to Gene Roddenberry.

Indeed, Star Trek: 25th Anniversary thrived in this febrile atmosphere of contemporary success tinged with nostalgia. It became the biggest Interplay hit since Battle Chess, selling over 250,000 copies in all and doing much to set the company’s feet back on firm financial ground after the chaos of the previous couple of years.

The game continues to stand up fairly well today, with a few caveats. Undoubtedly its least satisfying aspect is the space-combat sequence that must be endured at the beginning of each episode. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is one of the few places where the game isn’t faithful to the spirit of Star Trek.

Science fiction’s two most successful media franchises take very different approaches to battles in outer space: while Star Trek portrays its combatants as lumbering naval vessels, jockeying for position in a slow-paced tactical game of cat and mouse, Star Wars looks to the skies of World War II for inspiration, opting for frenetic dog fights in space. But 25th Anniversary goes all-in for Star Wars instead of Star Trek in this respect; the Enterprise turns into Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing fighter, dodging and weaving and spinning on a dime in response to the joystick. The reason for the switch can be summed up in two words: Wing Commander. Origin Systems’s cinematic action game of outer-space dog-fighting was taking the market by storm as Interplay was starting work on their own science-fiction game, and the company wanted to capitalize on their rival’s success. They described their game as “Sierra meets Wing Commander” at early trade-show presentations, and even made it possible to engage in randomized fights just for fun by visiting star systems other than those to which you’ve been directed, just in case the fighting you get to do in the episodes proper isn’t enough for you.

That was quite the stretch; the combat in 25th Anniversary really isn’t much fun as anything more than an occasional palate cleanser, and it’s hard to imagine anyone voluntarily deciding to look for more of it. Not only does this part of the game clash with its faithfulness to Star Trek in just about every other respect, but it doesn’t work even on its own terms. The controls are awkward, it’s hard to understand where your enemies are in relation to you, and it’s simply too hard — a point I’ll be returning to later. For now, suffice to say that Star Trek: 25th Anniversary ain’t no Wing Commander.

The worst part by far of Star Trek: 25th Anniversary.

Thankfully, the rest of the game — the “Sierra” in Interplay’s pithy formulation — is both more engaging and more faithful to the Star Trek of old. When you leave the Enterprise‘s bridge, the game turns into a point-and-click graphic adventure, marking the first time Interplay had dabbled in the format since Tass Times in Tonetown back in 1986. You control Kirk directly, but Spock, McCoy, and some poor expendable redshirt also come along, ready to offer their advice and use their special talents when needed — or, in the case of the redshirt, to take one for the team, dying so that none of the regulars have to do so.

The interface can be a little confusing at first; it’s not always clear when you should be “using” Spock or McCoy themselves on something and when you should be using their tricorders. But you start to get a feel for things after just a few minutes, and soon the interface fades into the background of what could stand on its own as a solid little graphic adventure — or, rather, eight solid little mini-adventures. Some of the puzzles can get a bit fiddly, but there are no outrageously unfair ones. The episodic nature of the game does much to make it manageable by limiting the possibility space you need to explore in order to solve any given puzzle; most of the episodes play out over just half a dozen or so locations.

Still, what elevates a fairly workmanlike adventure game to something far more memorable is the Star Trek connection. This is clearly a game made by and for fans of the source material. If you count yourself among them, you almost can’t help but be delighted. The writers do a great job of evoking the characters we know and love; McCoy lays into Spock like the old racist country doctor he is, Spock plays such a perfect straight man that one can’t help but suspect that he’s laughing up his sleeve behind his facade of “logic,” and Kirk still loves to egg them both on and enjoy the fireworks.

Star Trek: 25th Anniversary apes the look of its source material down to the title card that opens each episode.

The interactive episodes are true to the rhythms of their non-interactive antecedents; each one begins with a title card superimposed over a stately Enterprise soaring toward its latest adventure, and ends with some humorous banter on the bridge and a final command from Kirk of “Warp factor 4!” to send it on its way to the next. Even the visuals, presented in slightly pixelated low-res VGA, conjure up the low-rent sets of the show; more photo-realistic graphics, one suspects, would only ruin the effect. For the music, George “The Fat Man” Sanger and Dave Govett, whose work was everywhere during this period — they scored Wing Commander and Ultima Underworld as well, among many others — mix the familiar Star Trek theme with their own period-perfect motifs. The only things missing from their score in comparison to that of the original show are those oh-so-sixties orchestral stabs at dramatic moments. (There does come a point, Sanger and Govett must have decided, when nostalgia descends into outright cheese.)

It’s true that the episodes work more on the level of pastiche than that of earnest attempts at storytelling — another reason that enjoying this game probably does require you be a fan of vintage Star Trek. Most of the scripts read like a Mad Libs take on the original series, mixing and matching its most familiar tropes. The crew has to shut down another misguided computer (a la “A Taste of Armageddon”), engage in some gunboat diplomacy with the Romulans (“The Enterprise Incident”), and negotiate an earthly religious mythos transplanted to another planet (“Who Mourns for Adonais?”). Harry Mudd, the intergalactic con man whose antics featured in two episodes of the original series, makes a third appearance here. Even Carol Marcus, scientist and Kirk paramour, shows up to foreshadow the major role she’ll later play in the movie Star Trek II.

Star Trek: 25th Anniversary in its graphic-adventure mode. The gang’s all here, including the poor terrified red shirt hiding behind a pillar.

If none of the interactive episodes can challenge the likes of “The City on the Edge of Forever” for the crown of Best of Trek, they’re certainly far less embarrassing than most of what the series produced during its painfully bad third season. They encompass the full tonal palette of the show, from screwball comedy to philosophical profundity. The graphic-adventure format does force a shift in emphasis away from dialog and action to more cerebral activities — the Kirk on television never had to slow down to solve set-piece logic puzzles like some of the ones we see here — but that shift is entirely understandable.

Unfortunately, all of the good will the game engenders is undermined to a considerable extent by one resoundingly terrible design decision — a decision that’s ironically built upon a foundation of very good design choices. Each episode permits multiple solutions to most of the problems it places before you; this is, of course, a good thing. At the end of each episode, assuming you don’t get yourself killed, you receive an evaluation from Starfleet Command in the form of a percentile grade. You’re rewarded with a better grade if you’ve managed to keep the poor redshirt who beamed down with you alive — this game’s writers show far more compassion for the expendable crew members than the original series’s writers ever did! — and if you’ve accomplished things with a minimum of violence — i.e., if you’ve kept your metaphorical and sometimes literal phasers on “stun” rather than “kill.” All of this too is a good thing, seeming evidence of a progressive design sensibility that’s become ubiquitous today, when countless games let you finish each scenario with a bronze, silver, or gold star, allowing you to be exactly as completionist and perfectionist as you choose to be.

But now the bad part comes in. The final grades you receive on the episodes affect the performance of your crew during the remaining space-combat sequences, which themselves become steadily more difficult as you progress through the game. In fact, the final battle is so hard that you virtually have to have scored 100 percent on all of the preceding episodes to even have a chance in it. It turns out that the seeming easygoing attitude of the game, encouraging you to do better but letting you slide if you just want to move on through the episodes, has been a colossal lie, an ugly trap to get you 90 percent of the way to the finish line and then stop you cold. This is like a caricature of awful, retrograde game design — something even Sierra at their absolute nadir would have thought twice about. Either tell the player at the end of the episode that she just hasn’t done well enough and make her do it again, or honor your promise to let her continue with a less than stellar score. Don’t lie to her about it and then cackle about how you got her in the end.

Pro tip: this is not good enough to get you through the game.

Not only is this design decision terrible on its own terms, but it clashes with all of the implications of Interplay’s own characterization of Star Trek: 25th Anniversary as a more casual sort of adventure game than the norm, one that will let you play through a satisfying episode in a single relaxing evening. Interplay heard about this cognitive dissonance from their fans — heard so much about it that they begrudgingly issued an optional patch that let players skip past the combat sequences altogether by triggering a hot key. It wasn’t the most elegant solution, but it was better than nothing.

This discordant note aside, the worst complaint you could make about Star Trek: 25th Anniversary in 1992 is one that doesn’t apply anymore today: that it was just a bit short in light of its $40 street price. And yet, worthy effort though Interplay’s first Star Trek game is on the whole, they would comprehensively top it with their second.

Given 25th Anniversary‘s commercial success and the open-ended license Interplay had acquired from Paramount, a sequel was rather inevitable. There wasn’t much point in making bold changes to a formula that had worked so well. Indeed, when they made the sequel they elected to change nothing whatsoever on the surface, retaining the same engine, the same episodic structure, and even the same little-loved combat sequences. Yet when we peer beneath the surface we see the product of a development team willing to learn from their mistakes. As sometimes happens in game development, the fact that the necessary enabling technology was already in place in the form of an existing engine allowed design in the abstract to come even more to the fore in the sequel. The end result is a game that, while hardly a transformative leap over its predecessor, is less frustrating, more narratively ambitious, and even more fun to play.

Although Star Trek: Judgment Rites continues with the episodic structure of its predecessor, it adapts it to a format more typical of television shows of the 1990s than those of the 1960s. An overarching “season-long” story arc is woven through the otherwise discrete episodes, to come to a head in a big finale episode. This gives the game a feeling of unity that its predecessor lacks.

Even more welcome, however, is a new willingness within the individual episodes to move beyond pastiche and into some narratively intriguing spaces of their own. Virtually all of Judgment Rites‘s episodes, written this time by the in-house Interplay employees Scott Bennie and Mark O’Green in addition to the returning contractors Michael Stackpole and Elizabeth Danforth, mix things up rather than stick with the unbending 25th Anniversary formula of a space combat followed by Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and a semi-anonymous redshirt beaming down somewhere. Combat this time around is neither as frequent nor as predictably placed in the episodes, and the teams that beam down now vary considerably; Scotty, Uhura, and Sulu all get at least one chance of their own to come along and use their special talents.

My favorite episode in Judgment Rites also happens to be the longest and most complex in either of the games. In Bennie’s “No Man’s Land,” a team from the Enterprise beams down to a planet which is being forced to reenact a simulacrum of Earth’s World War I by Trelane, the childish but almost infinitely powerful demigod who was introduced in the original-series episode “The Squire of Gothos.” As his inclusion would indicate, “No Man’s Land” is very aware of Star Trek lore. It’s plainly meant partially as an homage to the original show’s occasional “time-travel” episodes, like “Tomorrow is Yesterday,” “A Piece of the Action,” or “Patterns of Force.” These were beloved by fans for giving the familiar crew the chance to act out a bit in an entirely different milieu. (They were beloved by the show’s perpetually cash-strapped producers for another reason: they let them raid their studio’s stash of stock sets, props, and costumes).

Yet “No Man’s Land” transcends homage to become a surprisingly moving meditation on the tragedy of a pointless war.

Another standout is Stackpole’s “Light and Darkness,” a pointed allegory about the folly of eugenics.

In addition to showing far more confidence in its storytelling, Judgment Rites also addresses the extreme difficulty of the space-combat sequences in its predecessor and the false promise that is letting you continue after completing an episode with a less-than-perfect score. You now have a choice between no combat at all, easy combat, and hard combat. The middle setting is calibrated just about right. Combat at this level, while still a long way from the likes of Wing Commander, becomes an occasional amusing diversion that doesn’t overstay its welcome instead of an infuriating brick wall that kills the rhythm of the game. And, at this level, moving on from any given episode with a score of less than 100 percent is no longer a fool’s gambit.

Although a better game than its predecessor in almost every respect, Judgment Rites couldn’t muster the same sales. It didn’t ship until December of 1993 — i.e., almost two full years after 25th Anniversary — and by that time the engine was beginning to show its age. Nor did it help that Interplay themselves undercut its launch by releasing a “talkie” version of the first game on CD-ROM just a month later.

That said, it’s not hard to understand Interplay’s eagerness to get the talkie version onto the market. In what can only be described as another major coup, Interplay, working through Paramount, brought in the entirety of the original cast to voice their iconic roles. At a time when many CD-ROM-based games were still being voiced by their programmers, it promised to be quite a thrill indeed to listen to the likes of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and Deforest Kelley in the roles that had made them famous.

The reality was perhaps a little less compelling than the promise. While no one would ever accuse any member of the show’s cast of being a master thespian in the abstract, they had been playing these roles for so long that doing so once more for a computer game ought to have presented little problem on the face of it. Yet they plainly struggled with this unfamiliar medium. Their voice acting runs the gamut from bored to confused, but almost always sounds like exactly what it is: actors in front of microphones reading lines on a page. It seems that none of them knew anything about the stories to which the lines related, which can only be construed as a failure on Interplay’s part — albeit one perhaps precipitated by the sharply limited amount of time during which they had the actors at their disposal. Over the course of a scant few days, the cast was asked to voice all of the dialog not for one but for two complete games; the voices for a CD-ROM version of Judgment Rites were recorded at the same time. And they had to do it all bereft of any dramatic context whatsoever.

Somewhat disapointing though the final result is, these sessions represent a melancholy milestone of their own in Trek history, marking the last time the entire cast to the original show was assembled for a new creative project. As such, the talkie versions of these games are the last gasps of an era.

Personally, though, I prefer the games without voices — not only because of the disappointing voice work but because Interplay chose to implement it in a really annoying way, with Kirk/Shatner saying each choice in every dialog menu before you choose one. Interplay, like most of their peers, was still scrambling to figure out what did and didn’t work in this new age of multimedia computing.

Despite holding a license to the original series for the balance of the decade, Interplay would never release another game set in this era of Star Trek after the talkie version of Judgment Rites shipped in March of 1994. The company did work intermittently on an ambitious 3D action-adventure featuring Kirk and the rest of the classic crew, tentatively entitled Secret of Vulcan Fury, near the end of the decade, but never came close to finishing it. Gamers and Trekkies were moving on, and the newer incarnations of the show were becoming, just as some had predicted they would, the default face of the franchise. Indeed, no Star Trek game since the two Interplay titles discussed in this article has revisited the original show. This fact only makes 25th Anniversary and especially Judgment Rites all the more special today.

That would make for a good conclusion to this article, but we do have one more thing to cover — for no article about Interplay’s takes on classic Trek could be complete without the media meme they spawned.

Like a fair number of other memes, this one involves William Shatner, for more than half a century now one of the odder — and more oddly endearing — characters on the media landscape. Back when he was a struggling young actor trying to make it in Hollywood, it was apparently drilled into him by his agents that he should never, ever turn down paying work of any kind. He has continued to live by this maxim to this day. Shatner will do absolutely anything if you pay him enough: pitch any product, sing-talk his way through fascinatingly terrible albums, “write” a new memoir every couple of years along with some of the worst science-fiction novels in history. He’s the ultimate cultural leveler, seeing no distinction between a featured role in a prestigious legal drama and one in a lowest-common-denominator sitcom based on someone’s Twitter feed.

And yet he manages to stay in the public’s good graces by doing it all with a wink and a nod that lets us know he’s in on the joke; when he goes on a talk show to plug his latest book, he can’t even be bothered to seriously pretend that he actually wrote it. He’s elevated crass commercialism to a sort of postmodern performance art. When the stars align, the kitschy becomes profound, and the terrible becomes wonderful. (“Why is this good?” writes a YouTube commenter in response to his even-better-than-the-original version of “Common People.” “It has no right to be this good.”) For this reason, as well as because he’s really, truly funny — one might say that he’s a far better comedian than he ever was an actor — he gets a pass on everything. At age 88 as of this writing, he remains the hippest octogenarian this side of Willie Nelson.

In keeping with his anything-for-a-buck career philosophy, Shatner is seldom eager to spend much time second-guessing — much less redoing — any of his performances. His reputation among media insiders as a prickly character with a taste for humiliation has long preceded him. It’s especially dangerous for anyone he perceives as below him on the totem pole to dare to correct him, challenge him, or just voice an opinion to him. Like a dog, he can smell insecurity, and, his eagerness to move on to the next gig notwithstanding, he’s taken a malicious delight in tormenting many a young assistant director. Craig Duman, the Interplay sound engineer who was given the task of recording Shatner’s lines for the CD-ROM versions of 25th Anniversary and Judgment Rites, can testify to this firsthand.

The problem began when Shatner was voicing the script for the first episode of Judgment Rites. Coming to the line, “Spock, sabotage the system,” he pronounced the word “sabotage” rather, shall we say, idiosyncratically: pronouncing the vowel of the last syllable like “bad” rather than “bod.” A timid-sounding Duman, all too obviously overawed to be in the same room as Captain Kirk, piped up to ask him to say the line again with the correct pronunciation — whereupon Shatner went off. “I don’t say sabotahge! You say sabotahge! I say sabotage!” (You say “potato,” I say “potahto?”) His concluding remark was deliciously divaish: “Please don’t tell me how to act. It sickens me.”

This incident would have remained an in-joke around Interplay’s offices had not an unknown employee from the sound studio they used leaked it to the worst possible person: morning-radio shock jock Howard Stern. Driving to work one morning, Brian Fargo was horrified to hear the outtake being broadcast across the country by this self-proclaimed “King of All Media.” Absent the “it sickens me,” the clip wouldn’t have had much going for it, but with it it was absolutely hilarious; Stern played it over and over again. Fargo was certain he had just witnessed the death of one of Interplay’s most important current projects.

He was lucky; it seems that Shatner wasn’t a regular Howard Stern listener, and didn’t hear about the leak until after both of the talkies had shipped. But the clip, being short enough to encapsulate in a sound file manageable even over a dial-up connection, became one of the most popular memes on the young World Wide Web. It also found a receptive audience within Hollywood, where plenty of people had had similar run-ins with Shatner’s prickly off-camera personality. It finally made its way into the 1999 comedy film Mystery Men, where Ben Stiller parrots, “Please don’t tell me how to act. It sickens me,” on one occasion, and Janeane Garofalo later inserts a pointed, “You say sabotahge! I say sabotage!”

Thank to Howard Stern, Mystery Men, and the mimetic magic of the Internet, this William Shatner outtake has reached a couple of orders of magnitude more people than ever played the game which spawned it; most of those who have engaged with the meme have no idea of its source. If it seems unfair that this of all things should be the most enduring legacy of Interplay’s loving re-creations of the Star Trek of yore, well, such is life in a world of postmodern media. As Shatner himself would attest, just reaching people, no matter how you have to do it, is an achievement of its own. And if you can make them laugh while you’re about it, so much the better.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of December 1991, May 1992, March 1994, and May 1994; Questbusters of April 1992; Origin Systems’s internal newsletter Point of Origin of December 9 1991; the special video features included with the Star Trek: Judgment Rites Collector’s Edition. Online sources include Matt Barton’s interview with Brian Fargo and Fargo’s appearance on Angry Centaur Gaming’s International Podcast. Finally, some of this article is drawn from the collection of documents that Brian Fargo donated to the Strong Museum of Play.

Star Trek: 25th Anniversary and Judgment Rites are both available for purchase from

"Aaron Reed"

The 2019 Spring Thing Festival of Interactive Fiction

by Aaron A. Reed at April 05, 2019 01:42 AM

I’m very pleased to announce that the 2019 Spring Thing Festival of Interactive Fiction, an annual event for the last eighteen years, is now live!

This year, there are twenty entries spread across two categories. Authors chose whether to submit games to the Main Festival, where they are eligible for ribbon nominations and a prize pool, or the Back Garden, which opts out of ribbons and prizes but has looser entry requirements (including allowing excerpts from unfinished or commercial games).

In the Main Festival:

In the Back Garden:

You can play the games and find out everything you need to know about the festival at the official site, or follow us on Twitter at @SpringThingFest.

On a personal note, the Spring Thing was one of the places I first got my feet wet as an IF author, so it’s been an honor and privilege each year to help keep it alive. The festival largely flies under the radar, but has been a launching point over the last two decades for a number of influential games and gamemakers. It’s well worth checking out.

Congratulations to all this year’s authors, and a big thank you to all the prize donors. Enjoy the festival!

April 04, 2019

Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! Totem Force by Tom Rayner

by Rachel E. Towers at April 04, 2019 05:41 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

Battle giant robots, mad gods, and…awkward teen romance? You were just an ordinary high-school student—up until you rescued a mysterious being from the army, and were granted amazing powers! Now you must put on your colored costume, make sure to finish your homework, and prepare for the fight of your life! It’s 40% off until April 11th!

Totem Force is a lighthearted 260,000 word interactive anime-inspired novel by Tom Rayner, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

• Play as male, female, or non-binary; gay, straight, bisexual, or asexual.
• Romance your jerk rival, the mysterious blonde, your childhood best friend, and many others.
• Solve your problems with friendship, or use your own intellect and willpower.
• Defend the city from monster attacks!

It’s time for you to become the Heir to the Heavens!

Tom Rayner developed this game using ChoiceScript, a simple programming language for writing multiple-choice interactive novels like these. Writing games with ChoiceScript is easy and fun, even for authors with no programming experience. Write your own game and Hosted Games will publish it for you, giving you a share of the revenue your game produces.

Emily Short

Can AI tell a good story?

by Emily Short at April 04, 2019 10:40 AM


Tuesday I was invited to speak at the interactive narratives summit at the London Games Festival, specifically in a debate over whether AI can create a good story.

Perhaps the original scheme was to start a good showdown, but I have somewhat complicated views about what the question even means, and my would-be debater Brenden Gibbons did also, as it happens. So instead we had a more temperate but I think more interesting conversation, moderated by David Tomchak.

This is not a transcript of that conversation, because I can’t do that, but it’s an attempt to recapture some key points, drawing also on notes I made before the event, and expanding some of the ideas with links or examples I didn’t have available in the room.

First, AI can definitely already create stories, by pretty much any definition that a narratologist would establish. Indeed, we can set the bar higher than just “is there a sequence of causally-linked events,” though many scholars would accept that as enough. Some of GPT-2’s output is interesting, funny, and narrative. So are the outputs of other techniques stretching back to the 70s, from generative grammars to the model-and-curate approach used by James Ryan in his recent dissertation Curating Simulated Storyworlds. If AI were an orchard, we would have already plucked many and diverse story fruits there.

Two. Fewer of those techniques reliably create coherent stories every time they’re run. There are some strategies to deal with this — hence James Ryan’s emphasis on curation above — but it means that of the ways to make a story with AI, many are unsuited to placement in the runtime of a game, where you want to make sure the player will always have an acceptable experience. If AI story generators were cars, a lot of them would be lemons, constantly breaking down at the side of the road.

Still, there are some techniques, using grammars or certain other constraints, that have a high likelihood, tantamount to a guarantee, of making something one would acknowledge to be a story. So, next question:

Three: what do we mean by good?

Does it need to be novel? How novel? The output of a grammar can surprise the author, but typically less so than the output of a neural net model. On the other hand, the output of a grammar may be more surprising to a reader, especially if the NN model is trained on a fairly uniform corpus of sample text, since in that case the resulting text may pretty much read as parody or a trope-heavy recasting of a genre. There are some additional possibilities — conceptual blending approaches, style transfer — that allow AI to map different sources together in surprising new ways.

Does it need to exhibit the properties we might describe as creative? (If you’re interested in how we even define creativity in the context of computationally generated art, I recommend the past proceedings of the International Conference on Computational Creativity.)

Does it need to be true, in the way fiction can be true? Are we asking for a story that teaches us something new about the world, reveals a viewpoint or experience we haven’t had ourselves, offers a critique on our existing systems, or otherwise does the work we tend to associate with art or literature?

This is where I think we tend to expect the least from AI; and I would agree that if what we mean by story is “an expression of an author’s subjective experience,” then until we have AGI, either an AI cannot write stories, or an AI can only be a tool to realize the stories of a human creator.

Still, AI creations do sometimes reveal things to us about ourselves from a perspective that is not human, precisely by showing the strange patterns in our behaviour that we might not recognize ourselves. It is perhaps worth considering that at its best, AI will tell us stories that only AI could tell, and they’ll have different qualities from the stories told by people. (This is something I talked about in my Gamelab talk in Barcelona a few years ago, and I stand by it now.)

If AI were a great storyteller, it would be an alien bard who has studied our planet from orbit and still doesn’t get it; but the tales it tells embarrass us with their insights all the same.

Fourth point. Why would we want AI to tell stories?

For me, this is not chiefly about replacing human authorship; there are lots of authors, and way more people who want to write game stories than who actually have that job. If our only point for AI is to take away work humans dislike, then there are many many possible AI deployments that come before storytelling. Most people I know like telling stories at least in recreational and social contexts, and have a natural ability; that includes small children.

However. The interactive realization of stories, the creation of dynamic experiences that adapt around the player’s intervention, and this is the point where I come in, because I started to need procedural techniques when I wanted to build experiences with more narrative agency and a more adaptive world than I could possibly account for or write myself. I want AI to help me tell my stories, or the stories that the player and I create together.

April 02, 2019


NarraScope workshops to be offered by IFTF Education Committee members

by Judith Pintar at April 02, 2019 06:11 PM

The IFTF Education Committee (EdCom), is excited to be hosting three workshops at NarraScope on Friday June 14. Early sign-in begins at 6:30 pm in MIT building 32 (the Stata Center). The hour-long sessions will start at 7:30 pm, also in building 32.

All workshops are free for NarraScope attendees. Registration is open now.

This is what is on the line-up:

Teach Lamp: IF Workshop for Educators

Presenters: Brendan Desilets and Matt Farber

Are you a teacher who has always wondered about using interactive fiction in the classroom? Here’s your chance to sample some interactive fiction in its two principal forms, parser-based IF and choice-based IF, and to learn directly from people who successfully use it in their own teaching. In this workshop you’ll read interactive fiction that has been used in classrooms, and you’ll try your hand at writing some as well. This is your chance to get started! For more information, contact Brendan Desilets, [email protected]

Make Lamp: Crafting Parser-Based IF with Inform 7

Presenters: Anastasia Salter and Judith Pintar

The classic verb-driven, parser-based model of Interactive Fiction offers space for nuanced world-building, conversation models, and puzzle development, but can be needlessly daunting for beginners. We’ll dive into the “natural language” engine of Inform 7 and work through the textual construction of objects, rooms, and a few classic puzzles. For educators, Inform 7 can be a particularly compelling way to introduce the logics of object-oriented programming, and for writers Inform 7 offers impressive flexibility in narrative branching and NPC character building. For more information, contact Anastasia Salter, [email protected]

Twine Untangled: A Beginner’s Workshop

Presenters: Chris Klimas and Stuart Moulthrop

Twine is a platform for making anything from choose-your-own-adventure stories to entrancing, multi-mediated game-worlds. Twine is as powerful as a world of creative coders can make it – yet incredibly easy for beginners and a great tool for teachers. Join us for a hands-on taste of Twine, introducing the interface, basic composition, story logic, and some glimpses of scripting and other advanced topics. No programming experience necessary! For more information, contact Stuart Moulthrop, [email protected]

April 01, 2019

sub-Q Magazine

April 2019 table of contents

by Stewart C Baker at April 01, 2019 01:41 PM

Encounters between the everyday and the unknown are a big part of what makes speculative fiction (and, I would argue, art in general) so effective at pulling us out of ourselves and into the mind of someone else. It’s this tension that gives Poe his eerie cerebral terror and LeGuin’s worlds their endless beauty—and their quintessential relatability.

Our games this month are all about those encounters, as well. Holly Heisey’s “Scripting Diplomacy,” our original game, follows an autistic diplomat as they plan out their first solo mission to a non-human station. “The Invader,” by Elizabeth Smyth, puts you in the footprints of a woman who finds something strange—and deadly—at a deserted beach.

This month’s cover art by Laura De Stefani, “So Little…”, turns the encounter on its head: Is it the girl and her dog who are encountering the giant creature or, as the title suggests, the other way around?

On the essay front, in “Hounds & Heroes: Control, Closure, and Exploration in Games” Sharang Biswas questions the very nature of encounters, asking if following a solitary hero as they encounter something new and threatening is the best way to tell a compelling story via games. Anya Johanna DeNiro looks at classic one-command IF game Aisle, which very much moves away from heroic encounters and into a mundane encounter in a grocery store shopping aisle—or does it, exactly? Last, but not least, Bruno Dias examines failure in storytelling, whether it’s as the result of an encounter or not.

We’ve changed our process on non-fiction a little this month. Going forward, our two shiny new non-fiction editors Langley Hyde and Dawn Vogel will be editing the essays. This will free me up to do more of the leg-work for getting the issue together more smoothly, and will improve the editing process for our non-fiction content.

As a reminder: Patreon supporters and on-site subscribers get early access to all our content on the first of the month. We’re committed to paying our authors for their work, and subscriptions help us do that in a more sustainable fashion. If you’re not a subscriber, you’ll be able to access our content on the 15th of the month.)

As you browse through our offerings this month, we hope there will be many new and interesting encounters that you take with you on your own journey. And we hope that journey brings you back to us in June, when our next issue hits the virtual streets!

The post April 2019 table of contents appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

Author Interview: Elizabeth Smyth

by Natalia Theodoridou at April 01, 2019 01:41 PM

Elizabeth Smyth is a writer, game developer and villain enthusiast, currently working for Fusebox Games in London. She has been making weird and/or dark IF since 2013. Read some more of it at or find her tweeting about slime at untiltheygo. Elizabeth is the author of our April story, “The Invader.”

This interview was conducted via e-mail in March of 2019.

Elizabeth Smyth

sub-Q Magazine: “The Invader” is an incredibly atmospheric account of an encounter with a strange (alien?) being. It is also based on a true story. Could you tell us a bit more about that?

Elizabeth Smyth: For context: I used to go on long nocturnal walks around my hometown, this quiet little seaside village. Every night I had a spiritual experience looking at a cloud or a streetlamp or whatever because it was all too beautiful. So “The Invader” is mainly about trying to capture a real place and the overwhelming wonder I felt there.

So anyway, one night I met this blob – not actually on the path as it appears in the story, but near the start of it, where the concrete slopes directly onto the beach. It was round-ish and about three feet across. I’d just read “The Sea Raiders” by H.G. Wells, which is about deep-sea monsters showing up around seaside towns, so I was on high alert. I worked up the courage to poke it with a rock, then with my finger; it was wet and cold and had some give in it. It glistened a little, but this was away from the streetlights, so I could mostly only see the outline of it. I sat in the dark and stared at it for an hour. When I went back the next day, it was gone.

A few years later there was a scare in the tabloids about lumps of congealed palm oil washing up on beaches around the UK, so that’s my current theory. Even if it wasn’t an alien or an emissary from an underwater civilisation, it will always be the defining moment of that part of my life – inexplicable, unphotographable, something that briefly made the most familiar place strange and affirmed a dreamy teenager’s perception of the world as magical and sinister.

sub-Q Magazine: You have a background in English Literature and a career in game design. How does one end up working for a company like Fusebox Games?

Elizabeth Smyth: In my case, it was almost an accident. I’d made a bunch of twines over the years, but never gave much thought to other kinds of IF, or even games in general. I just wanted to write. Actually, the short-term plan was an MA in Victorian Literature. Then I found out about this internship at Fusebox. Once I realised making games was an option, that was the new plan. So I started as a part-time integration intern, then full-time, and now I’m on the writing team.

Some people at Fusebox have formal education in games, and some don’t. I think most of the writers have lit or creative writing degrees, but so much of what we do is specific to the medium. It takes more specialised skills than being a good prose writer.

sub-Q Magazine: Any advice for writers who want to branch out into games?

Elizabeth Smyth: A lot of people say “start with twine” and I think they’re right. With twine you can learn how to write interactive narrative without having to learn a bunch of other new skills at the same time. That said, mess around with the css if at all possible. If you’re not ready for art, animation or sound, at least get yourself a nice font and colour scheme that work for your story. Writing games means thinking about (and sometimes deciding) how your words will be presented as part of a complete package, and tweaking the twine stylesheet is a good way to get into that mindset.

Also, if you’re writing a simple choice-based story game, start by thinking of one interesting choice. Every option is superficially simple, ideally a single action or line of dialogue. Every option has a) up-front, obvious pros and cons and b) later on, emotionally/narratively significant consequences that make sense. Write the story around that. Build up to it thoroughly, pay it off thoroughly. Figure out what it really represents (idealism vs cynicism? Individualism vs collectivism?) – that’s the theme of your story. Even if one branch feels to you like the “true” version of the story, respect the player’s decision and write as if the other(s) were equally valid.

There are other approaches (“The Invader” doesn’t follow that formula at all), but my advice would be to start by learning to design a nice, impactful choice.

sub-Q Magazine: It’s recommendation time. What are some of the best works you’ve read or played over the past, say, 12 months?

Elizabeth Smyth: Mysteries of Baroque by William Brown was the first long ChoiceScript game I played, and it was really enjoyable. Very mysterious, as advertised. There were some great examples of short twines in the sub-Q jam – my favourites were “Drench” by Aidan Doyle and “Ghosted” by Josh Labelle (who also runs a twitter called Choose Your Own Tweetventure, which is arguably IF and super fun).

I’ve also gotten massively into Clash of the Type-Ins, the podcast where Jenni Polodna and Ryan Veeder play text adventures with the people who wrote them. It’s extremely enlightening to hear people with way more experience than me trying things and solving puzzles in real time.

sub-Q Magazine: What’s next for you?

Elizabeth Smyth: For complicated reasons, I’m planning to enter IFComp this year with a parser game based on a Nickelback song. And I’m excitedly experimenting with ChoiceScript, but don’t have anything to announce on that yet. Besides IF, I’ve got some creepy short fiction coming out this year in various anthologies, and I play a terrible ghost in a DnD podcast called Pax Fortuna.

The post Author Interview: Elizabeth Smyth appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

March 28, 2019

Choice of Games

The Superlatives: Shattered Worlds — Hunt a killer and save the solar system!

by Rachel E. Towers at March 28, 2019 06:41 PM

We’re proud to announce that The Superlatives: Shattered Worlds, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, Android, and on iOS in the Choice of Games Omnibus app. It’s 33% off until April 4th!

Conquer assassins and alien invaders in Superlative London! Defend Earth and negotiate interplanetary peace as you race to rescue Queen Victoria in this thrilling sequel to The Superlatives: Aetherfall. It’s also 33% off until April 4th!

The Superlatives: Shattered Worlds is a 218,000-word interactive novel by Alice Ripley. It’s entirely text-based, without graphics or sound effects, and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

You are the Arbiter, a planet-hopping operative assigned to stabilize a peace summit between Mars, Venus, and Earth. But when Queen Victoria is targeted for assassination, you must find her killer, unmask the Mysterious Officer he serves, and stop an otherworldly invasion before it’s too late! Armed with powerful aetheric artifacts and your own wit and skill, you’ll fight alongside your allies to unravel the mystery of this new threat, defend your home planet, and face a final foe both strange and strangely familiar.

Your employers, the shadowy body known as the Divergent Conclave, are dedicated to maintaining peace between the planets. Impress the Conclave and its members might help you protect Earth—or recruit you to serve their personal agendas. Will you manipulate them to gain their support? If the peace summit falters, will you placate the parties, or choose a faction? How will you stop the impending invasion? And who will you romance?

What started as a job of politics and diplomacy could end in murderous chaos. Face aliens, automata, and whole new worlds on a quest to save the solar system!

• Play as male, female, or non-binary; gay, straight, bi, or aromantic
• Import a Superlative character from The Superlatives: Aetherfall, or create a new Arbiter character from scratch
• Wield your very own invisibility cloak
• Uncover a double agent within the Queen’s Superlative Service
• Charm a menagerie of aliens, from multiform, jellyfish Jovians to miniature Mercurians to furry Saturnians
• Play as a battle-loving brawler or persuasive pacifist
• Romance a driven detective, stylish secret agent, or your violent Martian secretary
• Solve murders, negotiate with pirates, and uncover interplanetary conspiracies
• Cultivate your reputation among cats…or is it just one cat?

We hope you enjoy playing The Superlatives: Shattered Worlds. We encourage you to tell your friends about it, and recommend the game on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and other sites. Don’t forget: our initial download rate determines our ranking on the App Store. The more times you download in the first week, the better our games will rank.