Action and Interaction in Aether Interactive’s Localhost

This piece contains spoilers for Localhost and will make the most sense if you’ve played the interactive at least once; it can be purchased here.

When Sophia Park and her collaborators released Localhost in August, itch.io praised the piece, saying “modern Twine is defined by Sophia Park and [her production company] Aether Interactive.” Park’s work is at the forefront of a reinvigoration of Twine’s possibilities. Together with work like Porpentine’s episodically-released Sticky Zeitgeist and furkle’s IF SPY INTRIGUE, which won IF Comp 2015’s Golden Banana Award for the most polarizing piece, Localhost and Park’s other interactives are beginning to form what I’ve (rather flippantly) been thinking of as New Twine.

Continue reading “Action and Interaction in Aether Interactive’s Localhost”

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Constraint, Coherence, and the Limited Parser

I’ve spoken before about matching interactive stories to narrative platforms, and briefly mentioned experiments with limited parsers. That talk was about how to use a system’s built-in strengths to make your narrative stronger: Twine’s sense of containment, Texture’s high-ask tactile affordances, Inform’s exploration via cardinal directions and world modeling. But limited parser pieces do the opposite: they press against the constraints of parser games, and by doing so, allow creators to tell stories about the frustrations of agency.

Continue reading “Constraint, Coherence, and the Limited Parser”

Digital Labor: A Reading List

I’ve been wanting to dive into questions of how labor intersects with the digital realm for a while, and have had a couple conversations with friends, but the question we kept coming up against was of how to get a sense of the field. My current research doesn’t really intersect with my interests in this sphere, so I reached out on Twitter to ask about resources.

The following list is compiled from that conversation with Cameron Kunzelman, Austin Walker, and Daniel Joseph. Daniel’s portion is directly copied from a document he’s given me permission to share; the latter half is my curation of other recommendations, with links to online versions where possible. (I’m very interested in how work on digital labor gets distributed and who it’s accessible to, but that’s another blog post.) Daniel’s recommendation is to start with Terranova on free labor, Postigo on Youtube, and Küchlich on playbour. (For those who are interested in conversations I’ve had about streaming, the last will probably be of interest.) Both Metagaming and Games of Empire also seem relevant my interests, as does the Burawoy, but that last might be fairly niche and depends on you buying Bourdieu on habitus. (I do.)

Anyway, here’s the list; I make no promises about my ability to update it in the future as I’ve got some deadlines coming up, but I would like to continue to expand it as I read further.

Stranger Manor: A Social Escape Room Game

Stranger Manor was a Stranger Things-themed escape room game which I made for Haunted Manor 2016. Haunted Manor is an exclusive, ticketed Halloween event in Los Angeles that a host of creative individuals puts on yearly; this time, the property was transformed into the Byers’ house (the interior and bars) and the Upside Down (the grounds and dance floor). 

 

We capped the guest list at 200 to prevent crowding and allow for flow throughout the evening. Since going to a party is different than choosing to attend an escape room, and selects for different people, my job was to create a game that wouldn’t alienate casual players and which didn’t rely on knowing the tropes and history of puzzle hunts.

The design goals of Stranger Manor were several:

  • create a clues-based puzzle game in which guests could wander around the house and grounds;
  • not disrupt the general flow of party activities, including acquiring drinks, waiting for bathrooms, dancing, etc.;
  • allow interested players to solve as much or as little as they’d like and shift their priorities as new events and people came up;
  • get people moving around the lot and exploring the amazing build; have them share secrets and ideas.

Continue reading “Stranger Manor: A Social Escape Room Game”

IF Comp 2016 Reviews: The Queen’s Menagerie, Cinnamon Tea, Ariadne in Aeaea

The Queen’s Menagerie:

One of the longer Texture pieces I’ve seen, The Queen’s Menagerie follows the keeper of the titular menagerie through its labyrinthine halls. Everything here is about display, and power, and monstrosity: the keeper does his job, and does it well, for the Queen’s table scraps, despite the gravity of his tasks and the shortened lifespan it will inevitably mean. The Queen, for her part, keeps the animals as a display of power for visiting diplomats, and when not being used, they are kept confined in darkness. It’s a pretty horrific premise, and Groover characteristically leans into the intersections of this horror, the human cost. (The moment with the dragon is particularly effective because of the limited information you receive.) Third person works well here, establishing a voyeuristic distance between reader and keeper that’s complicated by Texture’s format of dragging. The platform requires slightly more input than a hyperlink, but less so than even a limited parser, and so seems particularly suited to work that deals with themes of implication, constraint, and guilt. Recommended.

Cinnamon Tea: 

A fairly short Twine piece on the Sorting Hat formula, where your early choices lock you into a path before you know the consequences of your action. I’ve seen that work well, particularly in places where “meddling in forces beyond your ken” is a theme (Magical Makeover comes to mind). But the game doesn’t do enough to signal the consequences of your choices, or offer me enough of a payoff. The last tea choice does have what I read as an ultimately hopeful (and well-written) dream sequence. But on the whole, I’d have liked better signaling; as this work stands, it feels slight. I’m afraid I can’t personally recommend it, but I think there are some readers it would work for.

Ariadne in Aeaea: 

(Note: my historical pedant hat will remain firmly off for the duration of the review.) A mid-length puzzly parser game, Ariadne in Aeaea appears to take some of the feedback the author’s previous game received to heart. Puzzles are largely clear, though I ran into one major question after speaking to my aunt. (This is definitely a game where I tried to get the PC to disrobe in several unhelpful locations, and the protagonist’s frustrated internal monologue was a nice counterpoint.) Both the walk through and the in-game hint system were useful (though there was one point toward the end where the hint system gave me the previous, solved puzzle’s hint).

Leaving my personal baggage with regard to some of these characterizations firmly at the door, I liked the protagonist as she was written, and felt that this reading of the archaic Mediterranean, with Ariadne subject to the pressures of familial social, and ultimately political expectation, was effective at making use of the parser’s confines. (Lately I find myself preferring games where even where the standard verbs are available, the narrative makes me want to press forward toward my stated goal rather than try the standard Inform library. Bronze, Hoist Sail For the Heliopause and Home, and Superluminal Vagrant Twin, to name a few canonical and contemporary examples.) Ariadne has a strong sense of forward momentum, of wanting to find out the next big secret, and–other than the puzzle in the middle–was fairly good at delivering on that momentum. Recommended.

Poetry for Mortality, or Imposed Obsolescence

So I’ve been watching Westworld, and perhaps more to the point, watching what narrative designers of my acquaintance think of Westworld. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about AI (both practically speaking as well as how AI functions in fictional narratives), and especially neural networks, and poetry’s position in the show–as something not just learned but processed, assimilated, and made into a complex reference system–seems apt. (Disclaimer: I am not an AI researcher and thus will gleefully use the wrong words to refer to these android characters throughout this post.)

I got into a conversation about wanting to take all of the decommissioned robots to a park and read gentle poetry on Twitter, which led to thinking about what specifically I’d want to give them. There’s a really interesting overlap between human concerns about mortality and robots which are built with either planned or possible obsolescence in mind; I’m thinking immediately of Bentley A. Reese’s fantastic “Suicide Bots” in Shimmer, which is one of my favorite stories this year. And so what follows is a list of poetry I think might be particularly healing or meaningful for droids which have been considered undesirable.

  1. John Donne, Holy Sonnet #1

I was so pleased when the glitchy robot professor/dad/whatever other roles I’m forgetting started quoting Donne, because Donne’s obsession with free will and mortality is incredibly salient here. “Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?” begins Holy Sonnet #1, and thus launches into a meditation on aging, mortality, and what can potentially be preserved–for Donne, through salvation; for robots, through saving. “Repair me now, for mine end doth haste” is a line particularly likely to win fans among the decommissioned crowd.

2. G.M. Hopkins, “No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief.”

Jacob Garbe mentioned this one, but this is absolutely the Hopkins I’d have included if I’d have chosen. Melancholy, with a fixation on the question if the grief of living can be transcended, Hopkins’ poetry carves out a hollow space for grappling with a world where its creator will not intervene to relieve suffering. (All right, Hopkins still believes in God, but his work has more to do with asserting that faith in the face of trials than singing praises.) This one in particular speaks to the anxieties of abandonment and the universality of oblivion: “all / life death does end and each day dies / with sleep”.

3. Edna St. Vincent Millay, “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why (Sonnet XLIII)

This might seem like an odd choice–Millay has a lot of work about aging, death, and loss, but this one is an old favorite, and dovetails neatly with the idea of memory and repeatedly-run subroutines. Favorite lines: “the rain / is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh / upon the glass and listen for reply” and “Thus in winter stands the lonely tree, / nor knows what birds have vanished one by one, / yet knows its boughs more silent than before”.

4. Eavan Boland, “Quarantine

Okay, bear with me on this one. Yes, it’s about mortality, so it plausibly counts, but it’s more specifically directed at our glitchy professor, whose directive overrode the rest of his programming to create emergent behavior. This stark paean to pragmatic love stands, in my reading, as a parallel to the sacrifice Abernathy makes to keep Dolores safe, to Thandie Newton’s character’s protection of one of her girls, to Dolores running to her sweetheart : the “merciless inventory” of “what they suffered. How they lived”. Yeah, I’m sad about robots, what of it?

5. A. E. Housman, “On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble (A Shropshire Lad 31)

Oh, Housman. My heart aches for him, caught between desire (if perhaps overwrought) and duty. This poem in particular deals with landscape and linkages, a world which retains the imprint and feelings of the people who have lived and died and vanished on it, even if only in the common behaviors they perform. And what’s more Westworld than that?

(Honorable mentions: Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas“, Ruth Baumann, “Headless Ghazal“, probably everything we still have of Sappho.)

IF Comp 2016 Reviews: Screw You, Bear Dad

“Screw You, Bear Dad” was the first game I played this year, largely because I had seen its cover art on the hashtag for a couple of days, and also, come on, a bear protagonist. I’m not made of stone.

The game does indeed feature a bear PC, though it also dedicates time to other characters (more on that later). It opens as you’re falling through a skylight–bulletproof but not bearproof, the first of many moments to make me smile–into a research facility, and accidentally crushing a human beneath you. You are then offered the chance to back away, or to wear the unfortunate person’s face as a disguise. Reader, I chose the skin mask.

The game then splits your time exploring the facility, seeing the bear through the perspective of the human characters, one of whom works in human resources and is arguably having the worst day of her career (unfortunately, no one makes a joke about the disguise as an aspect of human resources), and flashbacks which are later explained in exposition. The flashbacks for me are the strongest part, with a strong core story about the tension between wanting to find your own way and the weight of expectations.

The pacing for me is the biggest issue. It starts off with a bunch of Dad Jokes and a paced vignette where text appears slowly, controlling the pace of conversation. This is a technique that’s hard to do well, and it requires tight control of the narrative up to and past that point. For me, it only works if there’s little slack in the rest of the story, to serve as a contrast. And in “Screw You, Bear Dad”, there were parts which I felt went on too long, or were otherwise meandering: particularly in the facility.

The facility bit is probably the weakest part of the story, which is a shame because I do like Carla, and Bailey’s puns are great. (The pacing on the puns–click to have a character try to stop them, fail to hold back the tide–did work well for me. And the way profanity is strategically delayed until a suitably dramatic moment is a nice light touch.) But I kept wanting to get back to Bear Dad and his Bear Child. I imagine the purpose of switching to the humans’ perspective is to offer the idea that no one is beyond humanizing or impossible to feel empathy for. And that’s an idea I am very strongly here for, but in practice, it muddies the narrative and drags out the action. A shorter piece would have given those flashback pauses more emotional weight.

The author does a lot of work with link effects in this game: delays, shaking, disappearing and reappearing entirely. These elements  have variable success: I liked the effect of the dramatic pauses, but words that disappear sporadically make me feel like I have to time my click right. That’s fine and maybe even desirable in a game about urgency or precision, but here it doesn’t work for me.

What I expected from the opening was a staccato, surreal, funny beardungsroman, and I did get that in places. And I think the multiple perspectives does support my reading of the game as being primarily about realizing life has multiple surprising and frightening possibilities (anywhere from “I can make my own life” to “a bear crashed into my facility and everything is broken now”) and that the best response to this is empathy. But there’s too much slack in the overall structure and in the pacing choices for me to say that it’s a solidly coherent work. But it’s sweet, and it’s heartfelt, and it’s beary funny. Recommended.

IF Comp 2016: My Review Guidelines

It’s IF Comp season, which means a whole lot of games are about to be released. I said I’d try to review some of the games, which I’ll be doing on this blog, and so this is a general introduction about what to expect from my reviews and reviewing process. This is the first year without an author muzzle rule, and Sam Kabo Ashwell put up some very useful guidelines about best practices for authors. Instead of going into it myself, I’m going to link to him.

A couple of potentially-useful caveats about my own reviewing:

I am not going to get to everything. I’m incredibly busy with a couple of commercial projects on top of my day job, and if the comp gets as many entries as it did last year, I simply won’t have time to review every game. I’ll be using a randomly ordered list, but I’ll also be jumping around in that if I only have time for a short game or something catches my eye. Also, I’m much more likely to review long, traditional parser games if they have a walkthrough: it helps me save time if I get stuck on a puzzle, so I have more time to spend on the structure of a game and review more works.

I’m not writing reviews for the benefit of the author. It’s entirely possible authors will get some useful feedback out of it, but the purpose of my reviews is to record my experience and to offer that to other readers as a possible guide. I’m aiming for what worked, and what didn’t work, for me; what I found interesting or ambitious or moving or worth commenting on, and my experiences (all experiences, in fact) are subjective.

Given that, I’m not using numerical scores; I may or may not explicitly recommend games. If I do, it’s possible that there will be a reason, e.g. “recommended if you like…” or “not recommended for…”, but this may not occur in all cases. (Note: this section might be updated as I progress through reviews and my process becomes more regimented.)

I am reviewing a piece of IF, not that piece’s author. If I’m frustrated or bored by a game, or I criticize an aspect of it, that is absolutely not a comment on the author’s worth as a person. I know this can be hard; I know we all, myself included, have a tendency to get attached to our work. Creative success or failure does not correlate to the quality of your personhood or your worth as a person.

Bring Out Your Dead: Peace

What I set out to do with Peace was to make a game about the perils of being a traveler, about how observing a situation changes the outcome. “Peace” was originally for the magical realism game jam, in which the prompt I chose was the game’s first screen. (The title is a veiled reference to the line from Tacitus, “they made a desert and called it peace”.) Writing about the Roman Empire–and the Empire specifically–meant that I wanted to tackle issues of inclusion and exclusion, and limited agency. The story of Empire as produced by those in the machine. And who tells the story.

The problems I see are several:

1) Mechanically, I want the corpus to be more robust, and to respond to more of the player’s choices. If you get a silver mask in Caerulea, I want it to be traded in Flexiloquus for a secret. In that way, even at moments when there isn’t player choice specifically, it’s clear the game is listening. I never had the time to actually implement this.

2) There aren’t enough actions besides traveling in a particular direction, and the final choice. Part of this has to do with the disorientation of indefinite peripatesis, but I also think there’s more I can do here. This piece probably belongs in Undum, since I envision it specifically as a linear story which unfolds but is different in each iteration.

If I were to redo this now, I think it would be mechanically very different: at every stage you’d have a choice to remain, continue, or turn back. But turning back doesn’t necessarily return you to previous passages; the desert, after all, is infinitely vast and variable, and you may not be able to find the way. The further in you go, the more detached from the mechanisms of empire you become. There’s never a center to reach; that to me runs counter to the narrative I want to tell. Which means the ending to this game might feel slightly forced; I’m still grappling with that.

In the end, I wanted a text that that read as text, where player choices influence the minutiae of the story but not the story itself. I’m not entirely satisfied with this–my work is either really branchy, with wildly varying decisions, or extremely constrained and directly about that constraint. I’m not sure this has found a satisfactory balance yet. I’m interested in thoughts, about the direction this might go, if it’s resurrectable.

Solstice and house-keeping

I need to get better about updating the personal blog, probably. When I am blogging, I’m mostly over at Spooky Action at a Distance, the SFF/IF review-plus blog which Arkady Martine are co-running. It’s a lot more interesting to prod innovative things, and people making innovative things, than to navel-gaze about my own work.

I’m working on a couple things; planting seeds both metaphorically and literally. I had an herb garden when I was a kid, but I haven’t been stationary long enough in my twenties to plant one again. I don’t know if the soil will support what I want: basil and mint and rosemary, which at least seems to grow everywhere whether you like it or not. But I am going to try. I can’t say much at the moment about the particulars of my writing projects, but it’s interesting to see the intersection of a lot of long-held interests, how schemas crop up again and again, morphed and mutated and facile again. Okay, maybe a bit of a teaser: practical magic, grounded in body and history; cyberpunk in an age of technorealism; inscription as violence. They’re not all the same piece, of course: but I return again and again to the site of the body as simultaneous agent and witness, the bearer of traumatic legacies, and to where the borders of “human” blur.

To tip my hand slightly on the technorealism, I shake my head at the fear-mongering hot takes about artificial intelligence, the idea that AI will learn too well from natural language processing and replace what we consider “human” functions and roles. (This doesn’t mean I’m utopian, that I am willing to ignore the very real potential for violence that some forms of contemporary information-gathering have the power to deploy.) Better scholars than I on machine learning and globalization have explained why both technoworship and apocalypticism miss some crucial questions, but as a writer I’m predictably more interested in the narrative we’ve created around this. There’s a breathtaking arrogance in some of the assumptions here: that this kind of artificial learning doesn’t require moderation or filtering, as if culture springs from society’s head, fully grown and armed, that machines will elect to mimic humans exactly, imperfect and inefficient as we are, and–most interesting–that such a story is one of fear and warning. If our robots become us, we think, they will destroy us. Human history bears that out: but nestled in this is a fatalism which assumes this trait of destruction is inextricable with the human experience. Perhaps it is; I’ll leave that question to the scientists and cultural historians. But it strikes me that we’re missing a lot. There’s a lot of room for stories about the chaotic, creative riot that questions of machine learning and bots and data networks sit at the center of. Those are the kinds of stories that grab me.

We’re coming up on the solstice, the halfway point of the year, and I need to think about what I want to sow now to harvest in the latter part of 2016. I intend to submit something–in its horribly unfinished form–to the Bring Out Your Dead competition Emily Short is running, if only to clear my hard drive of projects and my head of partially-finished ideas. I can’t commit to a short story every month: interactive fiction projects are longer and weirder and less predictable than static fiction, in my experience. But I am committing to the word count equivalent. Let’s see what I reap.