Search Results for: emily short

Bring Out Your Dead: Flashpaper

A few weeks ago Emily Short declared the Bring Out Your Dead game jam, an event dedicated to sharing our abandoned projects and failed experiments.

The jam opened this evening; submissions remain open until the 24th. I see 31 entries already, including works from Alan DeNiro, Bruno Dias, Adri, Cat Manning, Sam Ashwell, and this honorable blogger.

I posted... the first prototype of The Flashpaper War! And the second prototype too. (Playable on web pages. I've also done iPad prototypes of the game, but posting those isn't really possible. You're missing some cute animations, is all.)

I said a year ago that Flashpaper would be my next IF project. And I still intend that to be true! I built these prototypes last year and demoed them in private; I showed a version at Boston FIG as well. But they just didn't work out, so I scrapped them and started from scratch.

(And then I had to spend some time on paying work, and some more time working on the Steam release of Hadean Lands... which is this Monday, by the way. Just thought I'd say.)

The start-from-scratch plan is still marinating. I have plans. They may even see daylight this year... but for the moment, enjoy these Flashpaper prototypes.

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The longer than I expected Versu post

Picking up the thread from my last post...

Versu is an engine for choice-based, conversation-focussed narrative fiction. It is currently available as an iPad app; support for more platforms is planned. Authoring tools are also planned, I believe. What you get right now is a free download with a tutorial, a short adaptation of a scene from Pride and Prejudice, and a longer ("30-45 minute") Gothic-ish story. For $5, you can buy an additional story about a polite family dinner party that turns to... well, I shouldn't spoil it, should I?

Versu is the project that Emily Short and Richard Evans have been working on for the past several years. Their team was acquired by Linden Labs, so this is coming out as a Linden project. (In later discussion, I am told that Linden just released an unrelated interactive-environment-authoring tool called Dio. Thus the perils of companies acquiring smaller companies; integration is a bitch.)

Superficially, Versu runs like any CYOA-format game you might have seen in the past thirty years. But a bit of poking around reveals that there's more going on under the covers. You are rarely offered the simple "left door or right door?" choice that characterizes simple CYOA plots.

Instead, you can take a variety of actions relating to the current state of the world -- the events around you, the recent topics of discussion, the items you have to hand. Each of these actions has a cumulative effect on the world state. Some actions will remain available for many "turns", or throughout the scene; others will be opportunistically available in response to an event. Moreover, an action can affect several story threads at the same time.

Thus, in the drawing room, you can sit and drink tea while talking to the Dowager, or talk to the Dowager while sewing, or sew while making eyes at that handsome Mr Brown. You're always selecting single actions from a menu -- or hitting "more" to let time pass -- but the effect is more nuanced, because the conversation spans many actions, and proportions matter. Of course, context matters too. Scolding Mr Quinn after he has insulted you is quite different from scolding him after a compliment, or out of the blue.

The marketing copy describes this as "social AI". It is certainly AI in the game-industry sense. You can choose to play any character in a story, thus making the other characters NPCs, under program control. They will all chatter on through the scene, reacting to each other and to you -- or acting more vigorously, for scenes outside the decorous bounds of the drawing room. (Presumably the engine could run everybody, creating a completely noninteractive, procedurally-generated drama. But the current app doesn't demonstrate that.)

The down side is that the flow of events can appear, er, rather procedural; a bumpy road of character interruptions and not-quite-sequiturs. At one point I sat and mulishly sewed embroidery at Mr Collins for a good half-hour, in absolute silence -- only to find that he thought me "very slightly unfriendly". Good thing I didn't get out the rusty halberd, then!

This is of course the risk of any kind of videogame social interaction that isn't completely on-the-rails. IF has as much to complain of here as any badly-scripted commercial game. (A typical IF transcript reads tolerably when the protagonist is alone. But we have standards for human interaction that don't apply to somebody rooting around in an abandoned dungeon.)

The best examples in the IF canon are, unsurprisingly, Emily's dialogue-based work. If you're familiar with Galatea or Alabaster, you'll recognize the techniques in Versu: characters follow topics, topics can be recovered (or dropped) after an interruption, and text is adapted and polished to flow smoothly in sequence. However, you will never mistake the result for a hand-crafted cut scene -- any more than you'd mistake a FPS level run-through for a war movie. This is a game, and the prose supports what you can do with it, not vice versa.

What can you do with it? I was rather pleased, in "A Family Supper", to find myself steering the tone of a social gathering with no explicit direction or goals. (Terrifyingly like real life!) Then I hit The Twist, and found that the latter half of the game was strongly goaled -- although with plenty of play in how I dealt with those goals. Presumably I could have ignored them completely, or had an attack of Regency-style vapors. In any case, it demonstrated that the Versu engine was capable of handling both modes.

A story's state is not maintained between run-throughs; if you start over, you reset everybody's opinion of you. Similarly, while three of the stories share a set of characters, there's no state carried over from one to another. So, if there's any sense of progression in Versu, it lies in exploring variations. (The app supports this by awarding achievements for various endings and states.) Is it enough to engage me? Ask me in a week, I guess.

I am not an immediate fan of the Pride and Prejudice era -- that's one problem. The writing here is good (I picked this screenshot for the cheese line) but I mostly go for the wizards and robots and dragons and spaceships. But then, there isn't much fantasy and science fiction which is this well suited to deep social simulation. Maybe I should be thinking about larger timescales, and the interactions of societies? Or society-scale AIs? Iain M. Banks has all sorts of snarky fun with the teatime foibles of Planetary Minds.

Never mind. Just speculating, here.

I will now spend some time scratching at the interface. Please don't take this as a condemnation of the app; the interface is by and large good. I find it imperfect in several ways, and there's always more meat in discussing near-misses than in designs that are simply bad. So if you're not a designer, you can probably just skip this bit.

New text appears at the bottom, as you'd expect for a scrolling transcript. However, when choices appear, they appear in a box at the top of the screen. (See screenshot.) I found the continual up-and-down focus jumps somewhat jarring. I realize this is a tricky problem! If the choice box appeared at the bottom of the screen, it would block the most recent output; you wouldn't be able to see what you were reacting to. I'd love to make all the choices appear in the footer bar, but in a complex scene there might be a dozen or more available moves. They couldn't possibly all fit. (Again, see the screenshot -- the choice box contains a scrollable list.) So I don't have a solution, but I still want to complain. (Harrumph, says the UI designer.)

The footer buttons are simple: "Act Now" or "More", with the former bringing up the choice box (if available) and the latter allowing other characters to act. Simple is good. On the other hand, I found the "More" button just a little too attractive. Maybe I'm too well IF-trained, but my reflex is to tap "More" until everybody stops talking and it's my turn to act. You can do that in Versu, but it's a very small slice of the possible range! You want to put in your two farthings' worth.

I think, for the footer, I want some visual representation of what options are available. This could be very iconic -- perhaps just a colored bar, with different-colored bands for "Conversation", "Advancing Relationships", "Eating", and so on. (The different categories in the choice box.) Seeing this shift would be a cue for me to jump up and consider new options.

A more concrete complaint: mandatory actions. As I said, you can tap "More" until you reach a point where you're forced to respond. That's fine; it's entirely appropriate in many scenes. However, the choice box is then a modal dialog box. You can't back out of it -- not even to consult the objective list, or return to the main menu. If you quit the app at this point, you may return to find that your position is lost, because there's no access to the bookmark/save option.

This is really not good. There's no game-mechanical reason to use a modal UI here; it's just a choice point like any other. I'm okay with the choice box appearing pro-actively, but it should be as easy as usual to dismiss it. The "More" button should be disabled, is the only difference. (So when you return to the story, you just hit "Act Now" and get on with the mandatory choice.)

Other nitpicks... there's no way to get a transcript of a session. (Except for screen shots.) There's no preference setting for font, font size, or color. (It doesn't have to be fancy, but this is a reading app, and people have different reading preferences. For my iOS IF interpreter, I copied Apple's iBooks style menu -- can't go wrong there.)

The app is built in HTML -- that is, most of the content lives in an iOS WebView. This makes for easy development (and easy transition to a browser version, should the creators want to go that way in the future). But it's also a bit slow and jerkity, even on my iPad 3. I don't really expect them to upgrade the app to all-native code, but I can't help thinking how much cleaner it would feel.

The app also requires Internet access, because the story engine runs on Versu's home server. This isn't a complaint, but you need to keep it in mind for subway and airplane rides. (Or if, indie-game gods forfend, Linden Labs goes out of business and the Versu service dies.)

Finally, I have to wag a finger at the weak Voiceover support. It's not nonexistent; the UI is HTML, and HTML is voice-accessible by default. You can get Voiceover to read any bit of text on the screen. But new text is not read out when it appears. (If you keep tapping "More", Voiceover just says "More. More. More." You have to poke around to get the story text.) Also, when the choice list gets long, it's difficult to scroll the choice box to reach the later options.

It may be difficult to fix this. I have implemented Voiceover support for iOS native apps, but never for a WebView-based app -- I don't know what's involved. However, for a text-based story medium on a voice-accessible platform, it really is a shame to miss out support.

So. You know it's a Zarf review when you get down through pages of review and realize I forgot to say whether I liked it. I like it! Versu is distinctly different from any of the choice-based formats I've seen before. It leaves my old complaint -- "CYOA invites lawn-mowering" -- dead and buried in a pauper's grave; I shall not resurrect it. It manages to recreate the drama-management of Facade without invoking the keyboard-phobia of the open prompt. Future experiments in narrative interactivity may not use this style of character-based AI, but I am confident that this style of open, explorable choice will continue on.

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Interactive and text-based game news, whoa, lots

Quite by coincidence, all the IF news of the month has piled up into a 48-hour narrative train wreck. No, that's a morbid metaphor. A 48-hour Volkswagen full of news clowns? I don't think it's getting any better. Skip the metaphor.

Coming in this post: My impressions of Emily Short's Versu! My impressions of Zoe Quinn's Depression Quest! My impression of Stephen Fry! (Not really that last.) First, some news about me.

Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home, my space-opera fairy tale, now joins Shade in the iOS App Store. As with Shade, I've added some illustrations for this iOS port. The art doesn't change the game, but it might make the important aspects of the ship's status easier to grasp.

If you're not familiar with Heliopause, it's a tiny little game that I wrote for @party a couple of years ago. It was inspired by my desire to stretch the traditional time-and-space scale of interactive fiction -- to deal with solar systems and centuries, rather than hand-held objects and minutes. It was also inspired by old pulp and New Wave sci-fi. (Count the literary references!)

Myrmidal is the queen of the bright worlds, and you've walked her million cities beneath her sky and beyond it. Myrmidal laughs and Myrmidal dances; they say no one weeps on Myrmidal, except for moments on the stage.

But even on Myrmidal the sun rises and sets, and the music grows tinny and harsh when you weary of dancing. Your best stories and your best lies draw the same fond laughter. This morning you decide to rise to the docks, and rouse your Horizon of Night from her sleep, and raise her sails. Somewhere are worlds you have never seen. And if your friends miss you at the dance, they can tell you so when you return.

(-- Heliopause, opening)

Related to this note, a new interview with me at Gamasutra, posted (and hosted) by Leigh Alexander. We talk about Shade, Heliopause, and how I think IF works on the small-and-touchy screen.

Over on the purely graphical end of the adventure-game spectrum, I'll note the release of Dagon, a framework for building first-person anamorphic-panning games. (This is the UI style of Myst 3, and of course many other games.)

Dagon is the framework build by Agustín Cordes for his upcoming game Asylum. You may remember the Asylum teaser demo from last summer; if not, it's worth a look. The Dagon scripts for the teaser are included with the download, so you can see how the system works.

Asylum is currently in the middle of a Kickstarter push -- they're 75% of the way to their (ambitious) goal. Kudos to Agustín for pushing out the open-source framework before the game's funding is assured. I hope it helps him hit the mark.

Next on the news list: Emily Short's secret project, which she and Richard Evans have been working on since before they got themselves acquired by Linden Labs.

Versu is an engine for choice-based, conversation-focussed narrative fiction. It is currently available as an iPad app; support for more platforms is planned. What you get right now is a free download with a tutorial, a short adaptation of a scene from Pride and Prejudice, and a longer ("30-45 minute") Gothic-ish story. For $5, you can buy an additional story about a polite family dinner party that turns to... well, I shouldn't spoil it, should I?

I started to write about this thing, but it grew into a full-on review. So I am cutting that loose to be its own post. Up next on the Gameshelf!

But first, the last of today's releases: Depression Quest, a choice-based indie release by Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey, and Isaac Schankler.

You are a normal person, with a normal job, and a normal girlfriend, and a -- perhaps normal -- lousy feedback loop between your thoughts, your habits, and your biochemistry. Which is to say: depression. You play through a few months of your life, with simple illustrations and a placid, sombre soundtrack. Your decisions all suck.

This is the sort of bleed-on-the-page writing (and game design) which would be mawkishly simplistic if it weren't real, but it is real. You can smell that, even if you don't have depressive tendencies yourself. (I do, as anyone could tell you who knows my preference for writing code in a room with the shades drawn. All week.) If you don't believe that some people are like this, you need to play the game, and pay attention.

Depression Quest is built on Twine. It's exactly the sort of simple graph-based plot that Versu isn't. (Whoops! You haven't read the Versu post yet. Context ordering failure! Well, we'll get back to it.) Look: DQ isn't about its gameplay. The mechanics are simplistic and limiting, and that's the point, right? To underscore the point, half the options are blocked off in any given scene. This has been done before (Rameses is famous in the IF community), but it still works.

Several months ago I played Papo & Yo, which is a similarly honest game. Anna Anthropy's Dys4ia is also coming up in many people's comparisons. Notice how different all of those games are?

I hope nobody thinks that this is "dreary games about life sucking". (We've got the regular game industry for that, right? From Space Invaders to Missile Command, and then an infinity of games about war?) No: this is people communicating their lives, and choosing the interactive medias to do it. We must have this if anything called "game design" is to have a lasting impact. That is all.

I'm not sure how much more I want to say about Depression Quest. It is a free browser-based game. The author is accepting pay-what-you-want donations, of which a portion go to iFred, a education and research organization. (I had trouble with the donation button, so I dropped money directly on iFred. Zoe, if we ever meet up in real life, I owe you a beverage.)

Rather than waft more of my own sentiments around, I will just quote from the game's introduction:

Depression Quest is a game that deals with living with depression in a very literal way. This game is not meant to be a fun or lighthearted experience. If you are currently suffering from the illness and are easily triggered, please be aware that this game uses stark depictions of people in very dark places. If you are suicidal, please stop playing this game and visit this link to talk to someone. [...]

It goes without saying that because of the very nature of depression, it is experienced differently by every person who suffers from it. We aren't trying to say that this is the "best" or "most accurate" representation, merely that this is an amalgamation of the experiences of the developers and several people close to them. Many of the following encounters deal with issues such as therapy, medication, handling a love life, and reaching out to support networks. In reality, less than half of depression sufferers actually seek treatment, for reasons such as lack of money, perceived personal failing, or public stigma. [...]

We've written it this way so that we can focus specifically on the illness, which becomes more and more difficult to deal with as the person who has it is less and less well-off.

(-- Depression Quest, opening)

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