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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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Readings in narrative game history

If you follow Planet IF, you're already all over these links. But if not, you gotta start following two blog-post series that have been rendering early IF and choice-game history into a fine itchy mist of detail and insight.

On the CYOA side, Sam Ashwell has been analyzing various corners of the genre in terms of structure -- with lots of chewy graphs and statistics.

And on the game history side, Jimmy Maher has been playing through every game that can be plausibly be called an IF ancestor. He's trying to find the versions closest to the original source, and he chocks each game up on a solid base of history and context.

...You know what, I don't need to paste any more links here. It's not about this page, it's about Jimmy's. Go look at the DA post list and start scrolling back.

Both series are ongoing, so stick them in your feed reader or your instant paper or your stone burner or whatever technology fries your eyes.

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What I bought at PAX East 2010, Part 2

9780810984233.jpgThis week I complete my writeup of the stuff I hoovered off the merch tables outside the very first PAX East expo hall last month. As I mentioned last time, almost everything I bought at this game expo was some kind of printed matter.

Meanwhile, by Jason Shiga

I don't understand how I haven't run into Jason Shiga's work before last month[1], where two of his self-published books lay among the Printed Works of Interest on display at the PAX IF Suite. One of them, a black-and-white, intriguingly dogeared comic book called Meanwhile, caught my attention immediately, and I was delighted to discover that a brand-new full-color hardcover edition had not only just been printed but was for sale at the expo. For my money, it is a best-case scenario of print-based interactive fiction.

First of all, it's great comics, mixing Shiga's delightfully chunky, cartoony art with a loopily recursive SF story, delivered through dialogue that's a charmingly correct mix of goofy and poignant. But what really defines the book is its game element: the panels are read not sequentially, but rather by following colored pipes that connect them. These pipes snake in all directions, often abruptly directing the reader onto a new page entirely. Crucially, panels often have more than one "outflow" pipe, and sometimes the pipes themselves branch; these represent decision points faced by the main character, leaving it up to the reader to decide which action he takes. (The story's first page serves as a friendly tutorial, setting the protagonist in an ice cream shop and having the reader decide his fate in the form of which flavor he chooses. Things rapidly get more interesting after that.)

So far, it sounds like an indie-comics homage to Choose Your Own Adventure books. And while Meanwhile most certainly is such an homage -- Shiga is on-record as a tremendous fan of that book series, and two of the hardcover's back-cover blurbs are from classic CYOA authors -- it transcends mere adaptation of form through a subtle twist of its own. The book's front matter contains, in small print, a brief developers' note from the author, which reads in part:

Once the outline of the story was structured, a computer algorithm was written to determine the most efficient method to transfer it to book form. However, the problem proved to be NP-complete. With the use of a V-opt heuristic algorithm running for 12 hours on an SGI machine, the solution was finally cracked in spring of 2000. It was another six months before layouts were finished, again with the aid of homebrew computer algorithms.

The author (who, helpfully, holds a degree in mathematics) is too humble here. Mechanical algorithms may have generated the book's complex graph of panels and pipes, but the final physical layout is clearly the result of painstaking creative work. As you play through the book, you start to realize that the various other panels on the pages you travel through, most inaccessible from your current path, don't share the page merely for efficiency's sake; they are meant to be seen, and read. You will see unusual symmetries on apparently unrelated pages that defy coincidence and demand explanation. Appropriate to the story's theme, these glimpsed path-fragments suggesting alternate pasts and possible futures start to feel like echoes of parallel timelines spookily flitting by, totally unreachable -- or are they?

I must also note that the book contains its own version of a text adventure game's "AMUSING" post-play segment. Once you reach the most complete ending (it's not explicitly marked as such, but the story is sufficiently well written that it you'll still know when you get there), there's not much left to do but start deconstructing the book yourself, flipping around freely and seeing what happens. Wonderfully, the book anticipates this, and responds appropriately. To say more would spoil it. All thinking playful persons should experience this book.

Incidentally, the other Jason Shiga book in the IF suite, Knock Knock, was a related but entirely different example of mad genius that I would also very much love to own. In this story, the player-character has three moves to deal with an unwelcome visitor to his tiny home. To make a move, the reader choses which of the many objects in the one-room apartment that the character should interact with. Every object is "useable", in the IF sense, at the end of every turn. The comic contains every possible four-page story that can results (all but one of which come to a disastrous end), and thus the whole work is the size of a phone book. Sadly, I am told that it is out of print. I strongly encourage this situation to amend itself.

Calvin & Hellen's Bogus Journey, by Calvin Wong and Hellen Jo

This minicomic by titular cartoonists Wong and Jo is the alleged instruction manual to a real but very silly downloadable Windows game. Standing alone, the book is a giggly parody in both format and content of the very earliest Nintendo game instruction booklets, such as the one that accompanied the original Super Mario Bros. (and therefore most every NES sold, at least in the US). It nails everything from the unsettling safety warnings at the start through the disconnectedly worded background story, arriving inevitably at the pages and pages of enemy-character depictions and understated micro-biographies that always constituted the bulk of the old manuals.

The downloadable game is by Derek Yu, who with both Spelunky and TIGSource under his belt is one of the world's most prolific and respected indie-game auteurs. So my discovery of this project feels like, I dunno, coming across an obscure pamphlet linking to a short-film adaptation of itself that Quentin Tarantino burped out on a lark and stuck on the web without further commentary. I love the world of indie games.

Twisty Little Passages, by Nick Montfort

I have not yet read Montfort's 2003 treatise on the history and form of interactive fiction. Nor did I have the author autograph it at PAX, even though I bought it amidst a running gag of Jason Scott, selling the book at his table, repeatedly calling Nick over to sign other people's copies every time he tried to enter the nearby expo floor. But I couldn't just let it sit there unpurchased, especially since I did manage to last year read and enjoy Racing the Beam, the excellent examination of the Atari VCS's technology and societal impact co-authored by Montfort and follow game-studies scholar Ian Bogost.

Digression: It is a good time to be an independent ludologist in Boston. In the typical mold of a Cantabridgian techno-slacker of no particularly noteworthy academic pedigree, I frequently find myself knocking about the MIT campus for one thing or another, which increasingly involves interesting events in the vein of game studies. I run into Nick fairly often in that context, hence my not vying for an autograph. A one-man agitator of everything that has to do with creative new applications of digital writing, Nick hosts the Boston IF meetups in his office there, and he also organizes the Purple Blurb seminar series. He's also kindly sat twice for filmed interviews with me, though I've yet to actually apply any of this footage to a finished project. So, on that note, I'll wrap this column up and slink back to my Final Cut workstation.

[1] Not entirely literally true. I did run into a brief reference to Shiga in Scott McCloud's Reinventing Comics, which I re-read last month as research for another column. McCloud pegged Shiga as an emerging talent when he wrote the book in 2000 - which, alas, was about the last time I myself paid deep and regular attention to the world of comics.

I empathized with Paul O'Brian's lament, in his own PAX writeup, of feeling like he'd been in suspended animation for years as far as interactive fiction went. That's quite similar to how I felt paging through Reinventing Comics for the first time in a decade, albeit from the other direction: this material was ten years old, yet still felt novel to me.

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Games in, on, and around our culture

Two quick links today.

  • A Common Nomenclature for Lego Families: That, families (and other households) that play with Lego. What do you call a two-by-two brick? Everybody calls it something. This article charts the nomenclature of four children.

...a "light saber" is a "light saber" no matter where you live or how much Lego you have.

(Thanks nancylebov for the link.)

  • One Book, Many Readings: A patient, detailed, gorgeous discussion of Choose Your Own Adventure books. Analyzes twelve of them in detail, including Edward Packard's original The Cave of Time. And when I say "analyzes", I mean several different data visualizations: the endings, the choice points, the flow graphs. Some are animated (Flash).

Another surprising change over time is the decline in the number of choices in the books. [...] I'd be very curious to know the reason for this progression toward linearity. Presumably the invisible hand was guiding this development, but whether the hunger was for less difficulty in the books or simply for something with more in the way of traditional storytelling is harder to unravel.

My only quibble with this essay is that white-on-black body text is a ravening monster that should have been exterminated at the end of the Dark Ages (1980-1984). But oh well.

(On the other hand -- who knew that Ellen Kushner wrote a CYOA book? Neat!)

(Thanks daringfireball for the link.)

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Digital nonlinear CYOA comic

...or, digital nonlinear CYOA comic with dinosaurs?

I know which one I'd choose.

(Fortunately, they're the same choice. I mean there's only one link there. Narrative forced choice for the win!)

Seriously, this is brilliant on about six different levels. It's digging into CYOA structure, the way players react to CYOA structure, the way videogames react to the way players react to CYOA structure (by putting friction into the lawnmowering process). I could relate it to my current favorite topic, the way online multi-authored multi-threaded text has grown beyond the traditional notion of text as a medium, into some kind of performance -- something that can only be followed in real time, see?

It also riffs on "camping", a familiar notion from multiplayer shooter games. And, on top of that, it's got dinosaurs. So that's six levels right there.

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