Yesterday evening, I went to the London & Oxford Interactive Fiction meetup group meeting. An extremely minor dabbler in Interactive Fiction, I currently think of myself more of a technologist than a writer, so the focus of this meeting in particular, on new developments in authoring tools, was more in my comfort zone than others might be - though the next event but one, on writing Interactive Fiction for money, might be very interesting indeed.

I’m interested in Interactive Fiction for a number of reasons. One is the (relatively) low barrier to entry: by and large, if you can write prose and use the mouse, you can write Interactive Fiction of one kind or another. One is the (relative) ease of deployment: absent any other requirements, you can put a webpage up and have a decent expectation that everyone will be able to interact with your fiction. And one is nostalgia: if I say that I learnt the meaning of the word “analgesic” from playing Interactive Fiction in my childhood, that will date me fairly precisely.

And so a while ago, being the academic that I am, I thought it would be fun to learn more about Interactive Fiction, and the best way I know to learn more about a subject is to teach it. So I have proposed a postgraduate module at Goldsmiths on Interactive Fiction, with the vague hope that I might be able to teach that instead of some of the more onerous service teaching (or service administration) that I have done in the past. The fact that I had the idea that it might be “instead” shows that even after this time my naïveté can overpower my cynicism.

I am told, though, that there is considerable interest in this module from our incoming cohorts: on our MA in Computational Arts, our (new) MA in Independent Games and Playable Experience Design, and our MSci in Creative Computing. That interest may or may not translate into enrolments, but I have to take at least the possibility of teaching IF next year seriously, and so this meetup on authoring tools was timely.

Particularly timely because I had been wondering whether my existing plan was too ambitious: the module calls for students to make two sketches / concept pieces in 11 weeks: one choice-based piece, using Twine or something similar, and one parser-based piece, possibly using Inform 7. I had already had some alarm-bells rung about whether the technical fluency of the students would be up to pick up a new and somewhat esoteric programming language in that timescale, and I had been casting about for alternatives in the more technical landscape: Texture had seemed the most promising, until yesterday Andrew Gordon of USC presented the Data-driven Interactive Narrative Engine.

Attempting to summarize the sometimes-garbled talk over teleconferencing software (ah, memories of my Teclo days), the idea implemented in DINE is that authors should not try to specify responses to actions, or model the world at all. Instead DINE, trained on existing corpora of narrative, is used to predict the piece of authored narrative most likely to follow a typed piece from the player. So the author’s job is to write plausible continuations of the scenario given player actions, and the player acts as co-author by describing actions taken by their character (or, in principle, anything in the world).

Of course, there are tradeoffs in this system; there is very little state in the engine, so complex scenarios with substantial player agency are likely to be difficult to implement – but I’ll be looking into DINE to see if it can plausibly give students some of the experience of writing and playing parser ganes.

At the same meeting, Juhana Leinonen presented Vorple, a Glulx-compatible virtual machine (for parser-based games) running in the browser, with extensions to allow authors to escape the sandbox. Juhana demonstrated accessing Wikipedia in response to the player looking up entries in an in-game encyclopeda; perhaps more interesting from the point of view of interaction, it is possible to substantially remove the parser and replace interaction with the system with hyperlinks, while still retaining the world-model engine. (And from the point of view of publishing, the ability to style the text and use multimedia content is also a potential improvement to the state of the art).

The two other presentations were less directly relevant to my potential students, though each interesting in themselves: Robin Johnson of Detectiveland fame presented his Javascript engine and the user interaction it facilitates, with the strong design constraint of having IF be playable on tablet devices (without keyboard or mouse); Emily Short of, well, general fame gave a demo of Spirit AI’s current work on Character Engine, offering a clear contrast in the context of the meetup with DINE: where DINE has almost no world modelling or state, Character Engine attempts to model the relevant state of knowledge and emotion of non-player characters, including their state of knowledge about what the player knows.

And then I chickened out of the after-event drinks and networking, and pretty much immediately regretted it; this blog post is offered by way of expiation, and I will try to be less socially inept at the next meeting on 5th July, about writing Interactive Fiction for money – another subject which might be of close interest to my potential students (and maybe yours? We are hiring...)