Concepts in Cybertext 4 – NPC Agency

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I want to talk about ways of implementing romanceable NPCs in games like CRPGs, gamebooks, visual novels and so forth. There are three main models for romantic subplot that we normally see, and I’ll be talking about two other ways of approaching romances that put greater emphasis on NPC agency. These include a model used in Sunless Sea, and the model I used in my own cybertext recently published by Choice of Games, Trials of the Thief-Taker. For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll be using the following definition:

NPC agency: The sense that other characters in a game have their own life and do not wholly revolve around the player character.

The Gift Model

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Give the object of your affections enough gifts to raise their romance meter high enough to unlock the romance option. This can be gamified by having gifts worth different things to different subjects (as seen in Fable), or adding a randomised chance of rejection in any given interaction (as seen in The Sims). This model has the benefit of being easy to adapt into a mini-game. It has the drawback of reinforcing the toxic idea that romantic relationships are a deserved reward for gifts and acts of kindness.

The Conversation Model

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In a conversation or series of conversations, say the right things to unlock the romance options. This is the most common way of implementing romantic subplots in rpgs and can be seen in everything from Mass Effect to Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden. On first blush it seems like a good implementation: the romantic partner chooses to submit to the player character’s amorous advances based on what they have to say. But functionally, the player knows that they are unlocking a romantic path (except in those awkward cases where the player stumbles into a videogame relationship just by choosing the most friendly or sympathetic conversation options). This foreknowledge transforms the interaction into an act of manipulation. The player is tailoring their character’s responses in order to win the conversation by presenting themselves in the way they believe the NPC would best respond to.

The Self-Improvement Model

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From what I understand of dating sims, it is most common to discover what stats your romance option values and then grind them until you meet their exacting standards. Some games hybridise this with the other approaches: in Dragon Age, you can improve the romance meter by giving gifts, saying the right thing, and acting the right way in front of your chosen one. In a certain sense this respects NPC agency as it shows that other characters have their own tastes and interests and will only accept a romantic partner that meets their conditions. On the other hand, because the player knows this, they are able to change their character into what they imagine the NPC desires. They play-act as what they think is their target’s ideal partner, engaging in a bad faith masquerade where their improvements are purely instrumental.


The most common models of romance in games are all terrible insofar as they follow the pattern of terrible mistakes in relationships. Whether that be expecting sex in exchange for gifts, or proceeding just by saying what you think the other person wants to hear, or transforming your whole self, Sandy-in-Grease-like, to meet someone else’s ideal form. The above three models are most common but also most prone to a sense sleazy manipulation. What can be done? Here are two other possibilities:

The Quest Model

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Some games, like Sunless Sea, require you to go to some extreme length before unlocking a romance option. Sailing to the four corners of the ocean to piece together the various MacGuffins in Sunless Sea takes time, thought and will. This forces the player to commit to their decision to pursue an NPC in a way that stockpiling silver necklaces doesn’t. Having the knowledge of what it would take clearly presented to the player allows them a sense of there being options. Some NPC agency can be added here: the NPC has their own goals and furthering your relationship with them is only possible to the degree to which you accept taking on those goals as your own, often to your great inconvenience. Functionally though it’s not particularly dissimilar to the Gift Model especially in that often you’re getting actual stuff for the NPC. Perhaps this is defensible as all you’re unlocking is a characterful tryst.

The Already Too Late Model

What if romance in games was a bit more like how it normally is in real life? By the time you have the opportunity to be in a relationship with someone, you’ve already become the person that you are and unless you engage in chameleon self-deception there’s nothing that you can say to the other person to convince them that you’re actually the sort of person that they desire if they don’t already desire you. This is more honest and less sleazy, but it’s not what people who play games for romance subplots really want. It’s the approach I tried to follow in Trials of the Thief-Taker, which I’ll now discuss.

In TTT there are three possible romance subplots: the rival thief-taker Nia Maddox, the burglar and serial escapee Jack Cyrus, and the social climbing lady of court Nancy Featherbrook. Maddox and Cyrus are both antagonists at the beginning of the game but they can be befriended. By the time the player who does befriend either of them realises that there is a romance option, they have made dozens of unrelated choices that have set in place their personality and place in the world. If the player at that stage isn’t what Maddox or Cyrus are interested in, or if they have committed acts that the other finds completely unacceptable, there is no romance possibility and only when it is too late will the player know what they did to shut off that avenue. This is the Already Too Late Model.

The romance with Featherbrook is similar but works a little bit differently. Featherbrook is very forthcoming about what she wants in a partner: she is interested in marrying into the nobility. The player of course only learns about this after they have already chosen their gender and social standing. At this stage though, the player character has the choice of lying to her if they aren’t the son of a baron or if they are the daughter of a baron in disguise as a man. They can jump through the other hoops of presenting themselves well at the masquerade ball and so forth until the proposal scene where their lies are undone (for, of course, Featherbook must eventually meet the family). The player is given a final chance to succeed in the relationship by presenting their establishment credentials as a replacement for nobility. But of course, by that stage it’ll only work if they have such credentials. They only know what they need to do when it is already too late.

In this subplot, the manipulation is blatant and the player knows that their character is engaged in a deception (and indeed there are many such characterful opportunities for lying in the game). While they may be consciously deceiving another, they are not deceiving themselves. Here the player knows that their character is acting dishonestly, whereas the norm in game romances is for the player to roleplay someone who is deceiving others while deceiving themselves that they are acting in earnest.

Commercially this model, at least as I implemented it, is a failure. As far as I can tell from very brief app store reviews, most players didn’t realise that there were romance options, and most of those that did realise still found it impossible to unlock them. It may have been honest and less unintentionally slimy, but it isn’t what the market wants. Most gamers have quite straightforward demands revolving around wish fulfilment. Such are the waters we swim in!

Next up… expectations of agency.

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Concepts in Cybertext 3 – Parsimony

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There’s a problem that can happen in cybertexts but also more broadly in videogames and tabletop rpgs. Where the player is given a resource to spend, if the use value of that resource isn’t adequately communicated then often they will engage in extreme frugality, in parsimony. They’ll hoard the money, the ethers, the tms, the scrolls, the tokens, the favours indefinitely.

Let’s define parsimony for our purposes like so:

Parsimony: When a player hoards a spendable resources because they think they might need them more later and in doing so fails to make the most interesting use of that resource.

In a cybertext with stats (I’m explicitly thinking of gamebooks like Sorcery and Choice of Games) there’s can be great reward in using an in game resource: new scenes, different outcomes, different risks. In writing them we want to encourage players to use their resource (often a Wealth stat). It’s more interesting to get several additional unique moments throughout a game than, say, an achievement for hoarding at the end of the game.

One design goal of the game writer is to enable and encourage the player to make interesting choices. For a choice to be interesting, the alternatives must be at least roughly equally tempting, or rather that depending on player goals, for each choice there is a player who would genuinely want to take that choice.*

Here are some solutions for parsimony that I know about. Please tell me which ones I’ve missed:

Numenera Cypher Method

In the sci-fantasy tabletop roleplaying game Numenera, players can pick up Cyphers: one-use gadgets that offer unique abilities. You might pick up a telepathy implant, a gravity-nullifying spray, an x-ray viewer or so forth. To counteract the players’ inclination to hoard these items until the perfect moment, Cyphers are incredibly abundant and the player has a limited carrying capacity. You’re sure to pick up a few in any given session, but each player starts off only being able to safely carry two at a time without risking adverse interaction effects. In this way there’s both a carrot and a stick encouraging resource use: use it and you can get more resources, don’t use it and suffer.

This works well for unique resources, but what about generic resources like money or reputation?

Mother’s New Car Method

When you make it in Choice of the Robots, you can splash out on a new flying car for your mother. In my Trials of the Thief-Taker after your first pay out you can buy a new outfit or waste the lot in a long weekend of debauchery (or be sensible and save). The point here isn’t just to give the player something interesting to waste resources on, but a way that they can express their character through spending a resource.

This is a great way to appeal to player’s desire to roleplay, but the more mechanically minded or risk averse player might still be tempted to save just in case.

New Batteries Method

After trade shuts down between the US and China in the run up to the war in Choice of Robots, if the player has decided to make their robot with light and versatile Chinese batteries, they’re faced with the choice to shell out some of their income to carry on using the batteries through a more expensive source, or move to a much less elegant power source. The player by this time is already invested in having these kind of batteries as they fit with the idea they have about their robot (especially if they’re going for a graceful machine). They’ve signalled to the game that this is something they value. And so paying to keep what they already value is a clever use of a resource mechanic.

Games like Morrowind do the same where the player must pay money to repair their damaged equipment. The more they value the use of a piece of equipment, the more it gets used, the more they’ll have to pay to keep using it. This works on two levels, because it’s the use of a generic resource (money) to upkeep a relatively unique resource (equipment). Either the player spends their money or they spend their equipment. They can’t be purely parsimonious.

Upgrade to Studded Leather At The First Opportunity Method

Perhaps the most typical way to encourage a player to use an in-game resource is to pitch the difficulty such that the game becomes functionally unplayable if they don’t. This is often the JRPG approach: you’ll fall behind if you don’t upgrade your equipment at each town, you’ll often drink all your potions, use all your revives. The trouble with this method if the difficulty is too high then it removes the tactical interest: you either get through the battle or restart; if the difficulty isn’t high enough the parsimonious player gets to the final battle with 85 ethers.

You Can’t Buy All The Puppies In The Store Method

When you can pursue multiple goals or rewards in a game one way to make them more or less exclusive goals and force a dilemma on the player is to for all the choices to require resources. The player is less likely to resent having to spend because the goal is freely chosen. This method requires you give the player ample opportunity to earn, and perhaps works better when they have knowledge of these goals to work towards before making the final choice of what to spend on. You get this in Bioshock where Adam is a limited resource and the bio-augmentations to spend it on are all appealing.

Saving For A Ticket Method

To pick my favourite videogame example again, most rewards from selling ill-gotten gains and performing quests in Morrowind are eaten up in tickets on the boat, teleport and silt strider networks. Like the London commuter, your hard-earned loot disappears into the transport nexus while you’re pursuing stratagems for earning more of it. In order to get to the next town, the player will either need to walk the long slog or more appealingly spend a bit of time trying to raise cash by looking out for money making opportunities. Notably in this game there are unusual things that can happen on the road, so the player can be rewarded with interesting content if they do decide to forgo spending resources, but there is also enforced boredom of the long walk. In this way, the some control over the game’s momentum can be given to the player.

Acceptance

Finally, the writer can just accept that some players are irredeemably parsimonious and just try to make that as an interesting a choice as possible. There can be interesting pay-offs at the end of the game, or there can be unique opportunities where they are forced to sacrifice other things to maintain that resource and so forth.

Next up… NPC agency.

 

 

*Aside: this is why high-level CCG and MOBO play is tedious because for any set of cards or characters there tends to be a narrow band of optimal choices such that the player isn’t mechanically encouraged to use their creativity and ingenuity, rather they are encouraged to pick the community-established best builds.

Concepts in Cybertext 2: Momentum

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Every time a player moves onto a new screen in a cybertext and they are faced with a choice, the pace of the work slows down. Where there is no choice to be made, the pace is still slowed but to a smaller extent: where the player can only click on link, they needn’t normally take time to deliberate. This is not just reading pace, but the pace of time in the whole work itself: every time the player pauses to consider, the cybertext freezes in that moment. When telling stories that proceed forward through time, a choice crystalises a moment. Too many choices without moving time forward stand to bog down the momentum of a story. We can define it like:

Momentum: The pace of experienced time in a cybertext.

Too many character creation choices in a row rob a cybertext of momentum. Especially if they happen before the player has reason to engage. If it is a story where choices are supposed to have consequences, momentum is especially important. A consequence necessarily occurs later in time than its cause: slowing down or freezing time through too many choices that don’t move on the story acts to delay the payoff for those choices. A slow experience of time in the cybertext removes tension.

Slowing momentum can be desirable: players often don’t want to speed through a work, but rather take time to soak in the setting, develop relationship, get more story payoff for their decisions. Rather than giving longer passages of text (which might, in any case, be skimmed), we can enforce the reading of text and slow down the pace where necessarily by inserting additional momentum lowering choices.

Next up… parsimony.

Concepts in Cybertext 1: Cybertext

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I’ll be writing a short series of mini-articles about some concepts we can use when thinking about cybertexts. I’ll start with my prefered nomenclature:

Cybertext: An interactive digital work primarily formed of text, where an active reader proceeds through the text by manually interacting with it (clicking links, dragging text, selecting radio buttons etc.). Interactive fiction that isn’t a parser game, walking simulator or a book.

I prefer cybertext to CYOA because that’s a copywritten term and not all of these works are adventures. It’s a bit less clunky than choice-based fiction, and leaves open the possibility of nonfiction works. By de-emphasising ‘choice’ it isn’t prejudiced against linear works. By including ‘cyber’ it rules out hardcopy choice-fiction (i.e. traditional turn-to-page-7 CYOA) which is fine as creating books requires different craft considerations due to being constrained by a physical medium.

It’s marginally preferable to hypertext because, although the term broadly covers the same terrain, interfaces like ChoiceScript and Texture show that a cybertext doesn’t have to include hyperlinks.

I don’t expect particular uptake for the term, though it is used in a similar sense in some academic circles.

Next up… momentum.

Emissions and Childbirth

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How many people having only one child would it take to reduce tCO2e emissions to the target level?

Having read this article based on a recent study, apparently having one fewer child is the biggest thing by far that a person can do to reduce their carbon footprint. But is this individual focus useful or a waste of time?

As of 2010, annual global emissions of greenhouse gases stood at nearly 46 billion metric tons, expressed as carbon dioxide equivalents.

According to the Presidential climate action project, global emissions need to decline by about 60% by 2050. That’s 27.6 billion metric tons of CO2e.

An individual having one fewer child would reduce annual emissions 58.6 tCO2e per year. That means to reach the 60% target, 471 million people would need to have one fewer child than they otherwise would. It takes two people to make a child, so really that’s 235.5 million less babies between now and the deadline. Only 142.6 million babies are born each year (according to 2013 figures), but we do have 32.5 years before the deadline.

Even if we imagine there was the best propaganda campaign possible, would it be possible to have 471 million people, 6.6% of the world’s population, motivated by climate change not to have a child when they otherwise would?

Fortunately, this isn’t the only or the main method by which reductions of emissions is sought. Each individual not having a child has the impact of 0.000000212% of the required emission reduction. At such a tiny part of the whole, a focus on individual responsibility for climate change seems unwarranted.

Elements in the Last Seven Cybertexts of the IFComp

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Here I’ll be looking at replayability, enrichments and dead ends in seven games from the 2016 Interactive Fiction Competition. I’ve been playing the web games in reverse alphabetical order (to counteract the misweighting the alphabetisation gives to games early in the order). I’ll give the parser games a playthrough next. The games under discussion are (in order of mention) Yes, my mother is…; To The Wolves; This is My Memory of First Heartbreak, Which I Can’t Quite Piece Back Together; Tentaculon; A Time of Tungsten;  Take Over The World; and Thaxted Havershill And the Golden Wombat. I am only talking about structural elements, so you can consider the following basically spoiler-free. There is more I could say about the plots, characters, themes, quality of the prose etc. but that will have to wait for another day.

Terminology

I’m calling text-based choice games played on screen ‘cybertexts’. Games with minimal or no branching and state-tracking are ‘gauntlets’, either friendly (with only asides) or unfriendly (with deaths), as per Sam Ashwell’s standard patterns. I’m calling all the text that appears between making a choice a ‘chunk’, while scenes that can be revisited after going off to various asides are called ‘nodes’. When the game tracks stats or items about the player, that’s ‘state tracking’.

Replayability

Skarn’s Yes, my mother is… (henceforth YMMI) is a game in which you play a therapist for people who don’t have in a near future setting. Els White’s To The Wolves (henceforth TTW) is a coming-into-powers fantasy story following a child sacrificed to the forest to ensure a good harvest. The two games are dissimilar in subject matter, though both broadly could be said to be games about children coming to terms with the actions of their elders. More than that, both share a very similar structure in that they are short cybertext which have state-tracking for each choice, within a largely linear structure that can branch to multiple endings. Both games save a list of unlocked endings so the player can see how many they have reached and decide whether to pursue them all. TMMI has five endings, TTW has three, and they both track personality stats behind the scenes (Rebelliousness/Maternal Closeness/Understand Others and Savagery/Candescence). The expectation in both games is to replay until the player has seen as many endings as they’re satisfied with. In both cases, more facts about the setting can be discovered by choosing differently, rounding out the games through successive playthroughs.

Given that both authors anticipated their games to be replayed, they both employ strategies to reward replaying, beyond the existence of multiple endings. YMMI has a number of in-world documents that can be unlocked through play. These flesh out the background and give context to the protagonist’s actions. These can be read in between any of the self-contained scenes, but explicitly need not be read (they don’t have an mechanical effect) on replaying. TTW in contrast offers the player achievements for bringing the game to certain states. These don’t really add anything in themselves like the documents do, but rather indicate that there are interesting avenues to take in the story that you might not have realised. Their names, like ‘A Singular Hunger’, and ‘Devotee’ hint at how you might come to these paths without spelling them out. In both, the mysteries of the speculative fiction settings are rewarding to unpack, though being lengthier YMMI is able to seed in more questions the player wants an answer to.

The chunks are quite long in YMMI, often with several pages of dialogue. Some of it varies on replaying if you make different choices both at the time and delayed (the conversation with Bull can play out quite differently if you take a violent approach with the skinhead), but there is a lot of merging of branches even within scenes, so most of the text is the same on replaying. TTW employs shorter chunks, often with small variations that have a mechanical effect as well as giving different descriptions. There is more branching within scenes in the later chapters. Further, the choices available to the player at the end of game vary due to the player’s end-state. Through this, the player is encouraged to roleplay different approaches on replaying. In YMMI, the repeated scenes and length of the chunks mean skimming text is inevitable, lending replays a thinner experience than the first play-though.

Ultimately, the motivation to replay in YMMI is to unearth new details about the setting that can shed what you’ve read in a new light and enrich subsequent playthroughs. The difficulty of reaching more than the default ending makes this sometimes a frustrating endeavour (I played through three or four times with different choices but reaching the same ending before resorting to the walkthrough). The motivation in TTW is more to roleplay different variants of the same character, sometimes more savage and vengeful, sometimes more furtive and lonely. The clearly contrasting approaches mean reaching different endings and side-branches is much more straightforward than in YMMI, and the shortness of the piece overall makes for more successful replaying.

This is My Memory of First Heartbreak, Which I Can’t Quite Piece Back Together (henceforth Heartbreak) is an fully illustrated chain of memories about a failed relationship. Evidently made created by a small team, the story, art, & UX design was by Jenny Goldstick, with development by Stephen Betts and Owen Roberts. The only text in the game is dialogue and choice labels, the rest of the story told through the pictures, sound, and animation. The cybertext consists of six scenes, the middle four of which can vary, in which the next scene is reached by clicking a labelled object on the screen to trigger a new memory. The intention is to replay to see most scenes, as each give only a very fragmented picture of the relationship. Like YMMI and TTW, Heartbreak employs some different strategies to encourage replaying. Interestingly, it doesn’t really have different endings: there are some variants, and they’re apparently random or perhaps weighted by the order of the previous scenes, but the ultimate outcome is always the same. This is appropriate, as the whole thing is framed as a memoir. Rather, it has a great deal of variety. It’s possible (and desirable) to play three times and see four entirely different middle scenes each time. The scenes are short, but can be manually skipped, and are visually and sonically rich, the illustrations encouraging the spotting of hitherto-missed details. On reaching the ending (which is lengthier and cannot be skipped) the game automatically starts up again from the beginning, pulling you back in again.

Heartbreak is very compelling and a pleasure to replay. Through the title, it’s upfront about not being a straightforward narrative. The scenes are connected only by strands of memories, and although each of the flashbacks appear chronologically, even all taken together the player must do a lot of interpretive work pulling all the different strands together. This is fitting, given that this is precisely what the protagonist does after the heartbreak, making this a case of the game-structure fully fitting and enriching the themes of the work.

Enrichments

There may be a better or prior-established word for it, but I’m going to call all those extra-textual elements in a cybertext enrichments. By this I mean, the sounds, colours, moving or delayed text. Everything that is possible on a screen but not in, say, a multiple-choice adventure book. By this I don’t mean the choices, or placement of the links, or structure of the chunks. The most basic format for a cybertext is to have the same background colour, font, and no sound or images throughout. YMMI and TTW both follow this model. Tentaculon (by Ned Vole) is a mystery horror cybertext with puzzle elements that improves on the basic format in a few different ways. There is at least one image, a humorous book cover. There are also various text delays for dramatic effect. There’s a recurring moving-text puzzle, with requires the kind of dexterity and timing skills not normally required of an Interactive Fiction reader. This can be forgiven, as the action of poising and catching is relevant in the story and the activity is both forgiving in it retries and easily winnable through perseverance. The attention to enrichments in Tentaculon is somewhat undone by the (at the time of playing) broken story structure. The game is set up as a series of nodes, often expressed as locations which can be (re)visited. When returning back to a node, often the whole scene would replay, delays and all. The conversation with the co-worker can be replayed without tracking states, different (contradictory branches) of the conversation could all be expressed.

Heartbreak is almost all enrichment. It’s possible to imagine the dialogue standing on its own, but the choices would make no sense outside of the context of the illustrations. In contrast, A Time of Tungsten (by Devin Raposo) has enough text to stand alone as a short story. Tungsten is a science fiction tale which has basically no state tracking, other than the helpful removal of already-explored links from nodes when revisited. The setting is richly developed, though I couldn’t really believe the frame-story dialogue as genuine dialogue from people in the future given their use of idioms and frames of reference over a hundred years old to them. What distinguishes it from a short story are its enrichments, of which it has many. Like Heartbreak, it has a persistent soundtrack and sound effects which accompany moments in the text. Unlike, Heartbreak, it requires a great deal of clicking, as snippets of text on the screen (often dialogue) appear on at a time as the player clicks, taking a very granular approach to pacing. While the story structure is mostly a series of linear nodes, the player is encouraged to explore the side thoughts around the main push of the story, and they are rewarded both by the development of the setting and characters, but also by the richness and appropriateness of the audio-visual shifts. For instance, during some brief and optional thoughts about life on Mars, the screen takes on a deep red tone. You can hear the sound of doors opening and shutting as you read people entering a room. These elements are polished, giving the whole a well-tested, professional feel. In a way, these enrichments help shore up the prose by continually reaffirming your faith that the author knows what they’re doing.

Take Over The World by Marie L. Vibbert is a short supervillain comedy based in East Cleveland, Ohio. Visually, it’s classic SugarCube Twine,  with a black background, white text, blue links and a sidebar. The comedy is heightened by the vibrant cartoon images, drawn by the author. They’re just plopped down inline where appropriate, and while not intending to be masterpieces of perspective or palette, they’re all charming in a goofy way. Moreover, as a reward for finishing, the player gets to see all images in the game. As the game has several different pathways, this is a good way of ensuring all players get to see the drawings, but it also works as a strategy for encouraging replay, as the player will want to go back through to find out how to arrive at one of the endings implied by images they didn’t see on their initial run.

Dead Ends

While Heartbreak is mostly a friendly gauntlet with no fail-state possible, a few of the other games allow the player to reach a dead end. Tentaculon for instance has several death-states, but these are no problem as the game can always be undone, and are perhaps necessary for the sense of the danger of the creature to work. In the late game, the state tracking seems to break, allowing you to replay flooding the corridors until you get things right, without apparently undoing at any point. Unlike most cybertexts, the game often requires the use of the back arrow rather than a textual link to backtrack. Unfortunately, this lends the initial appearance of a dead end to side sections. Much of this I expect could be fixed in a later patch.

In sharp contrast, to the cruelty-free dead ending in Tentaculon is Andrew Brown’s Thaxted Havershill And the Golden Wombat (henceforth Thaxted). Thaxted is an unfriendly gauntlet Twine comedy. It has minimal enrichments beyond some questionable colour choices for the text and background. There are several choices which end in a dead-end and the game cruelly restarts in its entirety, forcing a full replay each time. While some of the text is amusing (I liked the aside about the history of the castle) most is too jokey to be tolerable on a re-read which doubles-down on the frustration of replaying the same content. Further, picking the correct choice in every case is wholly arbitrary, including one instance of the dreaded unmotivated direction choice. Thaxted consciously tries to recreate every poor aspect of choice making in old combat-based choice games, including most unforgivably an openly arbitrary choice at the end which just involves clicking a word. Most charitably, this exercise could be said to be a send-up of the old way of doing choice-based stories, but in the medium you would struggle to find a lower hanging fruit. The walkthrough jokes about its paucity of decisions, saying, “Is it me or are all TWINE games like this?”, to which the answer is surely “No, none are this viciously anti-player”.

Finally, Take Over The World takes an interesting approach to in-game failure. Rather than reaching a death and having to undo (as in Tentaculon), or forcing the player to restart everything (as in Thaxted), if the player reaches a point at which they would fail, the game gracefully lets them move back to the previous stage and it updates the initial page to indicate that that branch was a dead-end. This option allows for choices which are unsuccessful without breaking the flow of the story. It also allows the player to see more of the content, and because of the absurd nature of the story these flirtations with catastrophe don’t particularly break immersion.

Interactive Fiction’s Twitter Bots

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There are over a dozen authors of interactive fiction who have also made twitter bots. It’s a natural cross-over: in both cases you are using a machine to assist in fictive generation. Here I’ll be running through the various bots I know to have been made by IF people. Let me know if I’ve missed any out!

IF-Themed Bots

Locations, inventory lists and character names all lend themselves easily to a bot as you can easily translate content from one text medium to another.

YOU ARE CARRYING:

This bot by Andrew Vestal throws up random inventory selections from various text adventures (skewing to an older Infocom-heavy corpus). Gives a nice feel for the different games. Tweet I or Inventory to the bot and it’ll give you a customised inventory.

The Thief

Mark Sample (a writer of E-Literature) made a bot to steals items from those given inventory by You Are Carrying. Actually more interesting than that is his call for Bots of Conviction, “computer program(s) whose indictments are so specific you can’t mistake them for bullshit”.

IF Inspiration

Hugo Labrande bot draws game ideas from random IFDB tags. Because of the mixed-noun/adjective nature of tags, the grammar of its tweets often don’t work. Sometimes it spits out neat ideas, other times it’s quite amusing.

IF Clue Bot

This bot was written by David Welbourn. It generates Cluedo-style Suspect/Location/Object tweets from content drawn from 111 games.

IFDB Sommelier

Emily Short made the IFDB Sommelier. Unlike the other IF-themed bots, this one serves as outreach and suggestion. It draws up searches on the IFDB for randomly selected lists of games. The nice thing about it is it has a good chance of selecting an interesting category of games that you wouldn’t have thought of investigating.

Anagram Book Bot

Andrew Schultz’s bot tweets anagrammatic book titles from his anagram-filled game A Roiling Original.

Generated Fictions & Other Magic

While the above bots are about interactive fiction, the following bots generate fiction. The art of using bots to generate randomised stories, situations, and prompts is a natural cross-over for the IF author: in both cases you are using a machine to assist in fictive generation. There’s some considerable skill overlap as well, indeed several text games have generated aspects (recently, the Harbour Master’s conversations in The Baker of Shireton, and the FAQ in Laid Off From the Synesthesia Factory come to mind).

Several of the following bots are generated using Kate Compton’s Tracery which is a tool for writing generative grammars. It powers cheapbotsdonequick (run by George Buckenham who made Hefty Seamstress a collaboratively made cybertext for creating bacronyms).

All Alike

Bridging my two categories is Caelyn Sandel’s All Alike, which generates intriguing location descriptions for interactive fictions, often with directions or nearby objects.

Omens and Portents

A tracery bot made by Bruno Dias, it tweets omens in the format Sign: Meaning. Sometimes arresting, it tweets twice a day which is a good decision for the corpus size. (Plus, no one wants to be inundated with ill omens.)

Casebook Generator

Made by the Laura Michet who as well as twines made the intriguing verifiedfacts.org. This bot generates a Sherlock Holmes-style detective story title. Always in the format of The [case/matter/etc] [of the/in] [thing/place/situation]. The format invites interpreting the titles into little mini stories. The corpus is huge and very thematically on-point.

Writing Prompts

Generates story ideas with a reasonable variety of formats. Some of the formats tend to generate more compelling ideas than others. This is also made by Laura Michet, who has made a number of bots (I also quite like her generator of X-Files plots).

dreamy bot

As the name suggests, dreamy bot generates random dreams. Made by &IF regular juxi. It has a wide corpus with a broad range of forms. Guaranteed to be dream-like every time.

City Exploration Bot

Verity Virtue’s city exploration bot generates scenes glimpsed while travelling an imaginary city. Well conceived, it creates evocative prompts.

Lil Spellbook

Harry Giles has made a number of bot-poems now. They explained the process in a handy article on the subject. Lil Spellbook creates magical spells and rituals with a friendly, self-help bent. Harry has written extensively on bot poetics and presents a range of poetry bots worth investigating.

Man Plots

Sam Kabo Ashwell made a bot using cheapbotsdonequick which generates hypermasculine plot summaries. They all follow an identical format, not fully utilising the strengths of Tracery, but as it’s the same joke repeated it probably doesn’t need obfuscating with different phrasings.

Genuine D&D Facts

My first bot was made to tweet just-about-believable Dungeons and Dragons facts. It follows a too-simple format of [According to source],[class/monster/race][dubious fact]. I made it using google sheets as a first experiment in bot making. I need to prune out the more boring facts in the corpus and add more sources of rumours.

Unlikely Powers

Unlikely Powers is a bot which I’ll continue to improve. It was inspired by the odd mishmash powers of the Worm web serial and the absurd specificity of abilities in Superhero League of Hoboken (Steve Meretzky’s best game). The bot generates unlikely superpowers every 3 hours. The corpus isn’t small, but could be broader, and some of the templates have become a little stale (I’m fed up of seeing You can [power] by [squeezing an appendage] but other people seem to retweet those ones more often).

Other Visions

The beauty of bots is that they admit a huge range of variations. Here are some more non-fictional bots made by IF people.

Yayfrens Bot

Made by Caelyn Sandel and Carolyn VanEseltine, Yayfrens tweets friendly, caring messages of support.

Acrostic Pi

Jason ‘Jmac’ McIntosh made Acrostic Pi which renders the number π as an acrostic, retweeting other people’s tweets that start with each of the numbers. At the time of writing, it just went past the 28,000th digit.

Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary

My latest bot. Just tweets a random line from Voltaire’s philosophical dictionary. As the dictionary was already quite aphoristic in style, I thought it might translate well into the bot treatment.

Ingsoc Party Slogans

Leonard Richardson (who made Robot Finds Kitten and Guess the Verb!) has made a huge number of twitter bots. I particularly like Ingsoc Party Slogans for its elegance of execution. You’ll need to click through to see what I mean.

An Algorithm

Finally, Nick Montfort has made dozens of computational poems. An Algorithm isn’t the most interesting of these (I really like Upstart) but it is the one he’s made for twitter. This is an algorithm that tweets about itself.