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Trope Tank Writer in Residence, Spring 2015

I am proud to announce that I am the first Writer In Residence at the Trope Tank for the coming semester.

What is the Trope Tank, you ask? That's Nick Montfort's office at MIT, home of his enormous collection of classic videogame hardware, software, and literature. (You can see just one corner of it behind me in the photo.) (Although I think the Asteroids cabinet is out of order again.)

What does it mean that I am a Writer In Residence? Well, basically it means that I have a key, and I will be hanging out in the office once a week. Wednesdays, I expect. I will certainly be working on some kind of IF project there; possibly Glulx upgrade work or interpreter hacking. And, generally, I'll help keep the lights on -- Nick is on leave for the spring semester.

The People's Republic of Interactive Fiction will continue to hold monthly meetings in the Trope Tank. Possibly we will schedule other events there, such as IF writing circles. Details remain to be determined. Join the PRIF mailing list if you're interested.

Thank you, Nick. I look forward to the coming semester.

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Warbler presentation postponed

Due to the weather that buried Boston over the weekend, we’re postponing my presentation about The Warbler’s Nest at MIT, originally scheduled for Monday. I’ll post again when I know the new date.

Sorry about that. Stay warm, y’all!

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A public presentation of "The Warbler's Nest", Feb 11 at MIT

I am delighted to announce that my interactive fiction work The Warbler’s Nest will lead the Spring 2013 Purple Blurb events at MIT. Purple Blurb is Nick Montfort’s long-running series of guest lectures and presentations from a wide variety of digital-writing creators. Past talks have included play and discussion of IF I greatly admire, and I’m honored to have Warbler follow them.

We’re currently working out exactly how the presentation will work, but it will definitely involve a spectator-friendly playthrough and reading of the game, followed by a discussion period.

The presentation will happen on Feb. 11 at 5:30pm in MIT’s room 14E-310. Like all Purple Blurb events, it will be free and open to the public. If you’re around Boston in February, please visit!

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Spacewar at MIT

Today I dropped by MIT to see a demo of Spacewar, the Very First Videogame -- originally written for the PDP-1 in 1962; now reconstructed by GAMBIT for the Arduino.

My photos aren't terrifically clear, but you can see the two spaceships maneuvering around a central sun (and its gravity well). They shoot at each other, and that's a videogame. The starry background, famously, is based on actual star charts.

The original source code to Spacewar has long been available (here, for example) but it is minimally-commented PDP-1 assembly code and not very accessible. The GAMBIT folks have worked for several months to reverse-engineer the code and figure out what's going on. See their blog posts on the project.

GAMBIT has promised (nudge, nudge) to post their marked-up copy of the original assembly, to document what they've discovered. I'll add a link when that happens.

If you missed Spacewar today, you should drop by the MIT Museum this Friday evening (5:30 pm); the game will be demoed again.

More photos below the dotted line.

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Slash Fiction and other puzzles

mime_slashfiction.pngAs I have done every year since 2004, I spent the second weekend in January playing (or solving, to use the field-specific lingo) in the MIT Mystery Hunt. I always feel quite privileged to play; each hunt iteration represents a one-time-only interactive artwork that a team of passionate amateurs spends the better part of a year planning and constructing, culminating in a single weekend where a thousand puzzle-hungry solvers trample through it.

Like an informational World’s Fair, it leaves its husk behind for the late-but-curious to tour: you may browse all this year’s puzzles online, and note that they seem to be arranged around a theme of ill-advised Broadway mashups. Without the context of the hunt alive around them, though, the puzzles lose a certain amount of motive force. When presented all at once like this, they lack the light but necessary hunt-specific narrative that organizes paths for the solver to follow. (This year, it featured a storyline based on the further adventures of the swindling showmen from The Producers.)

I would also argue that, even though each puzzle now links to its own solution page, these puzzles must still seem impossibly obscure to curious layfolk who stumble upon them. So in this article, rather than examine the hunt’s overall form where carefully paced groups of puzzle-sets slowly reveal the twisty superstructures of meta-puzzles, I’d like to highlight a few of the several dozen individual challenges which defined the weekend for the hunt’s players.

Let’s start with the puzzle titled Slash Fiction, designed by (and starring) Seth Schoen and Vera Yin. It makes a nice blog-post headliner because it happens to take the form of a six-minute video, one as fun to watch as to solve.

Have you watched it? All right, then: your challenge, as with every hunt puzzle, is to somehow definitively produce an English word or phrase based on this input.

A novice solver might start searching through the video to see if the answer word flashes by at some point, or might forgo analysis entirely to simply guess answers like MIMES or PARIS. A more experienced solver knows that well-constructed puzzles avoid expressing any information that don’t contribute to their own answers. This player will take the more fruitful route of examining the video shot-by-shot, probably creating their own table of contents for the video on paper or in a spreadsheet. They would then proceed to look for interesting patterns, and move forward from there.

In this case, the first level of pattern that emerges is that the video is broken neatly into groups of three shots: first the gentleman-mime does something in close-up, followed by an oddly minimal intertitle of “/” (or sometimes “/x-“), after which the lady-mime does something else in a sunny urban setting. After a flash of static, the pattern repeats. The video contains twelve twenty of these static-separated scene-triplets, and nothing else (beyond a delightful accordion-and-piano soundtrack). [Thanks to Seth Schoen for the correction.]

Having built a neat three-by-twenty table describing the scenes, a seasoned solver now has reason to suspect that each such triplet corresponds to a single alphabetical letter, and that these letters should, when ordered properly, spell out an answer. This may seem like quite a logical leap to the uninitiated! However, encoding letters into distinctly non-alphanumeric stimuli (such as video snippets of capering mimes) represents a very common design pattern in hunt-style puzzles, and solvers who’ve played through a hunt or two learn to recognize its signs. The solver’s ability to organize the puzzle’s surface-data into a regular table is a strong indicator that this puzzle involves a string of encoded letters, one letter per table-row.

So now, there is the simple matter of working out those letters, as well as the order in which to arrange them. This particular puzzle calls for further pattern recognition regarding the landmarks which the lady-mime cavorts around, as well the significance of the mimes’ antics paired with those odd intertitles. The willingness to perfom a bit of web-based research helps in both cases. I invite the reader to try working out the answer, perhaps with a friend or two. You can find the answer, along with a full explanation of its derivation, on the puzzle’s solution page.

It happens that I didn’t get to work on Slash Fiction during the hunt, sadly. I, a single player from a team of around 40 solvers, see only a few puzzles on any given hunt weekend. A typical puzzle can take hours to work through, while the hunt only lasts two or three days — and unlike some of my harder-core teammates, I like to leave campus at night to sleep in my own bed. Before calling a taxi home on Friday night, however, I had the pleasure of solving most of Andrew Lin, Elan Pavlov, and Jit Hin Tan’s The Undiscovered Underground, a puzzle which, while suffering from broken design, worked well enough to lead two teammates and I to build a very satisfying logical bridge, and follow it up with an unexpected and rewarding bout of real-world exploration.

As this puzzle is literally unsolvable by people who don’t happen to have immediate access to the MIT campus, I shall speak less coyly about its construction. The puzzle presents you with a faux text adventure. While its title and opening paragraph both directly quote a real game, the rest of the text is only Infocom-esque pastiche, with no real next parser; the player may only key in compass directions to move around the game’s map, unable to interact with anything its text mentions.

Clearly, the first step to cracking this one involves drawing that map on paper. A wise solver will follow up by marking the map with the locations of all the conspicuously repeating props and phrases that appear throughout the text, such as mentions of carrier pigeons or the message “you can rest here”. Steps three through ten, for my two co-solvers and I, involved turning this information around every which way. My friends experimented with folding the map into some sort of three-dimensional object — maybe you were traversing the inside of an person’s body, somehow? — while I played through the actual Undiscovered Underground interactive Fiction game, looking for similarities with the puzzle text.

After an hour or two of this, we took a break to compare notes and bat ideas around out loud. This is when I hit on a breakthrough: one room’s description of three portals leading to vertical shafts, one strangely giant-sized, reminded me of the elevator doors found on every floor of the very building we all sat in, which included an extra-large freight elevator. So if mentions of “vertical shafts” referred to real-life elevators, then the “carrier pigeons” might be… mailboxes? On a hunch, we called over another teammate, an MIT alumnus intimately familiar with the university’s famous underground tunnel system. “Oh yeah,” he said, as soon as he saw our drawn-out game map. “This part here’s under Lobby 7, and over here would be underneath Building 26…”

After getting directions to the nearest mapped intersection our teammate recognized, the three of us bolted down the stairs and into the tunnels. Very quickly, and to our profound delight, we saw we were right: the “pigeons” were indeed FedEx drop boxes, while “you can rest” statements pointed to nearby bathrooms. Other notable features of various tunnel locations all appeared in the game text, though similarly obscured into the language of fantasy role-playing quests. Most rewardingly, every place the text mentioned a pile of coins, there existed in reality a plaque with a you-are-here map of the whole tunnel system. Each of the 20 plaques we found prominently featured a single, large, unique letter. Score! Surely, we were steps away from the answer now. Once we completed our unexpected guided tour through MIT’s bowels, we rushed back to the our team’s headquarters to wrap the puzzle up.

Unfortunately, our team progressed no further with this puzzle. Unlike an elegantly constructed puzzle like Slash Fiction, The Undiscovered Underground presents far too much information. We had connections between these screenfuls of bogus text-adventure text and letters, but no idea how to shake an answer out of them, because there were so many things we could do. And the connection with the actual Infocom game continued to nag at us — why would the fake game’s text extensively quote the real game, if it wasn’t important somehow? Before we gave up, we pursued the possibility that the game’s exact wording about whether you picked up the coins you found clued whether you should “pick up” the associated letter and add it to the answer, but that went nowhere.

As the puzzle’s solution page states, the real answer involves taking note of features in the map that weren’t reflected in the actual tunnels, and using only those locations’ letters to spell out the answer. Sadly, this wouldn’t have worked for us: in at least one case, I was able to connect one of these extraneous features (“a temple to the goddess of wisdom” — a reference to Athena, MIT’s campus computer network) to an object at that location the designers apparently hadn’t noticed (a locked but clearly labeled network-utility closet). The following afternoon, during the hosting team’s wrap-up presentation, The Undiscovered Underground received some catcalls and boos, so I suspect we were not the only players who fell victim to a puzzle that asked its solvers to not pattern-match as much as they could.

In closing, I can link with pride to Andrew Lin’s Any Old Puzzle, the only puzzle I managed to definitively co-solve all weekend, right up to confirming the correct answer. I suspect, alas, that it was also one of the easier ones (though not the most minimal). If you can wring the right word out of this one, you’re at least as good a solver as I.

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For a neglected console, back to school at last

8x4t.jpgA personal note: After lugging them around for many years, I finally found a better home for my Atari VCS, its many controllers, and the sixty-odd game cartridges I had collected for it while I played it throughout the mid-to-late 1980s. Last Friday, I donated the whole lot to the GAMBIT Game Lab in Cambridge. At right is the one last family portrait I snapped on my phone before packing them all away one last time and heading to the subway.

I’d been considering doing something like this for long time, but what finally tipped me over the edge was seeing Toy Story 3. I found myself unable to avoid humanizing my poor Atari system, stashed away in the dark for so long, holding out hope after all these years that someone, anyone would set it up once again play with it.

For years, I could dismiss such thoughts by telling myself that I’d get around to it myself, someday. But it occurred to me only this year that I’ve irrevocably lost this ability. The Atari VCS cannot, by definition, work with flat-screen LCD televisions. Like other early home videogame systems, it displays video by, essentially, hacking the television it’s connected to. Lacking any modern notion of video memory, the VCS uses a variety of tricks that all assume the presence of an electron beam sweeping across the screen, painting pixels row by row. VCS games must carefully time their internal operations to the relentless march of that beam.

I bid farewell to my last such television in 2008, giving it to a friend the same day I bought my Xbox 360 and my first LCD HDTV. I didn’t think at the time about what else I gave up along with it.

I could have responded to this belated realization by trashpicking an old CRT TV, setting it up in the corner of my apartment somewhere, and finally building my own little Atari shrine. But, faced with it, I found myself thinking: why emulate Al’s Toy Barn when I could instead pass it along, where it could do some good?

I’m pleased with its new home, and have great faith that the faux-woodgrained little box and its dozens of boxlets have a bright future ahead of them as an object of study for today’s game students. Most of them wouldn’t even have been born yet when I received the system from my older brother’s friend in a big paper Stop ‘N Shop bag; he had loved it for years before that, but gave it away to a game-loving kid he knew when it was time to move away. Maybe I should have done something like that myself, perhaps when I myself went away to college. But I’m happy I finally did it now. (And I used a canvas Stop ‘N Shop bag, this time around.)

Confidential to Clara: I meant what I said about being willing to take on all comers at Indy 500. I still have my one-button driving-controller chops, even after 20 years. I just know it.

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[Boston] GAMBIT Talk: Magic Systems in Theory and Practice

For those who can make it to the Kendall Square area on Friday, GAMBIT is hosting Jeff Howard for a talk on magic systems. Here's the synopsis:

GAMBIT Talks: Magic Systems in Theory and Practice

Friday April 9th, 5-7 pm.

Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab
5 Cambridge Center, 3rd Floor (near the Kendall Sq T Stop)

Magic Systems in Theory and Practice

In his talk, Jeff Howard discusses ideas for creating magic systems that are more fun, meaningful, and interactive than those typically seen in many role-playing games. Weaving together examples such as the operatic magic systems of Demon's Souls and the multi-sensory magical language of Eternal Darkness, Howard suggests that the magic systems of the future should draw upon the occult teachings of the past in order to create magical grammars that take input from a variety of sensory modes, including gesture, music, voice, and color. Drawing on many concrete gaming examples, including his game-in-progress Arcana Manor, Howard argues that the total art of opera and the enacted symbolism of contemporary occultist "workings" provide a model for a magical grammar that is connotative rather than purely denotative, i.e. in which gameplay enchants players on multiple levels of emotion and idea.

Jeff Howard is Assistant Professor of Game Development and Design at Dakota State University in Madison, South Dakota. He is the author of Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives. He received his B.A. from the University of Tulsa and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. He is currently working on a game-in-progress, Arcana Manor, and related research about magic systems.

GAMBIT does various game-related things on many Fridays, but they usually start at 4:30, a bit early for me to make it from work, so I'm happy to see this one starting at 5.

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Steve Meretzky speaks in Boston tomorrow

This has been announced in many places around Boston, but just in case you missed it:

Infocom star Steve Meretzky (Planetfall, A Mind Forever Voyaging, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, Hitchhiker's Guide, Spellcasting 101/201/301, etc) will be speaking at MIT on Monday.

  • Monday, Oct 6, 6:00 pm
  • MIT, Stata Center, room 32-141

This lecture is part of Nick Montfort's Purple Blurb colloquium.

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MIT campus becomes giant game table

To start off the blog in the right mood, here's Eric Schmiedl's photographic evidence of a December 10 MIT hack that transformed highly visible parts of campus into an enormous game table.

On the morning of December 10th, hackers put up references to various board games around MIT. The Stata Center's Student Street got the cheese, mousetrap, and mouse (the latter, formerly known as the Hilltop Steakhouse Cow) from Mousetrap. Building 46 and the 34 atrium got the logo, cards, and dice from Cranium. The Media Lab (Building E15) got Scrabble -- a complete game played out on the gridded surface of the walls. The black and white paving stones in the MIT Medical / Media Lab courtyard were converted into a game of chess: with students playing black and the administration playing white. The grassy 'Dot' in front of the Green Building (54) gained a Settlers of Catan board, complete with MIT Campus Police officer as the 'robber' character standing watch with a can of A&W (root) beer in his pocket and a doughnut in his hand. And the campus maps that so helpfully guide tourists with their color-coded areas of MIT were turned into games of Risk, complete with plastic soldiers. Paper forms of the RISK maps were posted around campus as well, complete with proper markings to play a game of RISK a la MIT.

More photos of the prank on Eric's site.

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