It’s Been Awhile

We had a nice mention on Emily Short’s blog back on September 23rd.

And speaking of off-site reading, it’s probably a good time to remind people about the Phrontisterion blog, which has a fair amount to say about IF despite not being aggregated at Planet-IF. It’s specifically taking an outsider’s view at the IF community and IF tools, from the perspective of people interested in Chris Crawford’s work

If you’re not familiar with Emily Short check out her blog – she’s created of a number of seminal character-centric works of interactive fiction, is a key contributor to Inform 7, and one of the founders of Versu.

Traffic to the site doubled the day after her mention so I’m grateful but a bit embarrassed that I haven’t been as diligent about posting as I should have been. I guess I’ll have to resign myself to progress, not perfection.

In other “progress not perfection” news, Chris’ work on Siboot continues at a steady pace but it’s starting to look like the amount of work remaining has reached a point where it’s too much for one person.

Looking at this work list daunts me; how can I possibly get all this work done in any reasonable period of time? I was hoping to get this project done by the end of 2015, but this list suggests that it will take much longer than that. 2016? 2017? Even 2018? These dates bring into question the viability of the project.

To help him reach the finish line, Chris has issued a call-to-action for help in the following areas:

  • Dream combat animation
  • Facial displays
  • Interstitial stories
  • Novel feedback and editing
  • Fixing the SWAT editor
  • Commercializing the game

I myself volunteered to spend some of my free time digging through the Java code to see if I can get the LogLizard running again after Chris’ lobotomy (of the original Storytron code, not of Chris himself).

Undaunted in the face of adversity, Chris is considering a pivot.

Here’s the alternative I’m thinking about: I revert the Siboot storyworld to the original SWAT format so that I can edit it using the original, fully-functional SWAT. This permits me to take full advantage of all the great tools in SWAT, tools such as LogLizard that are broken in the Siboot version of SWAT.

After that.

I develop and refine the storyworld until it’s ready for prime time. It will look like hell, but it will play like heaven. It will have no consumer value, and will not impress anybody — except experienced game designers who have learned to look underneath the skin to see the bones and muscles.

And finally.

I’ll use Patreon to present this as a world-changing technology that I intend to give away by making it open-source. The Patreon money will pay for the people who make Siboot commercially viable, and then we’ll give away both the game and the source.

I’m a firm believer that perfect is the enemy of good so I can see some merit in this approach but I worry about Siboot/Storytron turning into some sort of never-ending research project.

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Limitations of interactive storytelling

I received an email from Stede Troisi that raises an interesting point. He posted the same message on the forum, but no response has appeared as yet, and I think his point deserves some contemplation.

He asks, “Is interactive storytelling even storytelling?”

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Who Needs Numbers, Anyway?

I want to expand on a topic Bill Maya mentioned in his last post on Inform 7.

He wrote:

But first a question – Why are real numbers and equations so important in storyworlds?

At their heart, storyworlds are simulations that model dramatic situations using real numbers assigned to character Attributes (real numbers are used because of the fidelity they provide). Frequently, two or more attributes are used in an equation to determine a character’s reaction to a situation

But this raises the question: why do numbers matter? Isn’t storytelling all about words and characters?

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Past Illusions of Narrative Interaction

It’s dreadful, shouldering the responsibility of filling this blank digital canvas with content and meaning. I thought to write that it’s a new experience for me, but then I realized it’s not – I have done this many times at Storytron, both as a technical writer and, even more so, as a storybuilder. Still, the dread is here. I think anyone who embarks on a creative pursuit feels at least a little awed by the prospect of making something out of nothing, and we in interactive storytelling have it worse than most, because we are each of us trying to create not simply a single work, but an entire medium. I truly believe that our greatest challenge is neither technical, financial, or indeed artistic, but personal – maintaining our resolve in the face of this dread.

To do that, we must connect with the inspiration that brought us to this field in the first place. For me that’s going to take a bit of work – I’ve been out of touch for half a dozen years, and even before that, I never produced a completed piece of self-expression, either in written or in storyworld form (as Storytron’s writer I mostly expressed my interpretation of Chris’ thoughts, rather than my own). I think a good place to start is to take a little retrospective trip to see how my thinking on the subject took shape. I would like to use my first two posts to invite you along on this trip. This would both allow those of you who don’t know me to get some idea as to who is writing to you, and allow me to tease out and foreshadow issues that are meaningful to me and deserve posts of their own. The first post will be about the source of my interest in interactive storytelling, which in my case stems from certain gaming experiences I had as a child. The second will trace my attempts to put that interest into practice. I will conclude each post with a summary of the topics it raised that I intend to return to in the future.

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Let’s Play House

What is interactive storytelling and what are we really trying to accomplish?

Suppose a small group of children gather and “play house.” They are engaging in interactive storytelling. Each child is a character in the story and there’s no script anyone must adhere to. As with the planchette of a Ouija board, nobody knows where things are going to go until they go there. It’s a form of roleplay, perhaps a sort of informal improv group.

Nobody seeks to “win” when playing house. The idea of a victory condition doesn’t even occur to the participants and why should it? The experience is to explore what it’s like to be someone you’re not (“Applause, Not Victory” – #30 in Chris’ IS lessons).

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What Works Work?

The Works section in the sidebar to the right contains a list of some of the early experiments in interactive storytelling. But it can’t be complete.

So what’s missing? Is there a particular piece of interactive fiction that deserves a place on the list? What about one of the early Versu releases? Did an earlier computer game carry the glimmer of interactive storytelling its eye?

Sound off in the comments about your favorite candidates.

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Open Sourcing the Siboot Face Editor

Back in January I posted something on my website about a facial expression editor that I had built for Erasmatron back in 1997:

erasmatronface1 java-siboot-face_med_hr

I published a brief comment on Gamasutra announcing my willingness to lead a team to make this technology available to all. Basically, nobody was interested, so nothing came of it.

I ended up writing a little face editor in Java for use in Siboot. This tool allowed a storyworld builder to create, edit, and display faces. It didn’t produce photorealistic images: the intention was to get something more like “serious cartoon faces” that could exhibit a broad range of emotional expressions.

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