Category Archives: Interactive Fiction

Games As Simulation

Games are simulations.

Games take a set of rules describing how things work, and they apply those rules to a world state to determine how that world changes over time. Sometimes the rules are very simple; “Snakes and Ladders” has about four rules. Sometimes, they are extraordinarily complex; World of Warcraft has rules that govern the actions and interactions of thousands of actors at once, with each actor having maybe a hundred different ways to affect the progress of the simulation. All games, however, share these fundamental attributes: they simulate the changes in a system over time using a set of rules.

Inherent in their status as a simulation is the fact that games are abstractions. No simulation can be an exact model of real life. Therefore, games use only a subset of the rules present in the systems they simulate. Sometimes, games simulate the real world: Roller Coaster Tycoon simulates the everyday workings of a theme park. Sometimes, they simulate a fantastic world: Morrowind is a simulation of the fictional fantasy island of Vvardenfell. Sometimes, they simulate an abstract world: Conway’s “Game of Life” simulates a world composed of either a grid of unicellular organisms, or a world of multicellular organisms with a very strange way of living. In all these cases, however, the designers of the game have chosen which rules to include in the simulation and which to abstract away. Roller Coaster Tycoon does not require the player character to get sleep. Morrowind allows the PC to eat, but does not require it. The “Game of Life” uses a very limited set of rules.

What distinguishes a game from, say, the sort of airflow simulation used by aerospace engineers? Player interaction. In games, players can modify the progress of the simulation. They can change the starting parameters, or choose what an actor will do, or even modify the rules of the simulation as it progresses. It is this interactivity that is essential to the nature of games. Games simulate worlds, but their most important property is that they allow the player to affect the simulation. It is from this ability that goals emerge, that agency arises, that fun appears. Games are simulations with life.

2009 XYZZY Awards Nominating

The 2009 XYZZY Awards are in their first round of voting, which is basically a nomination round. This is the major annual award show for works of interactive fiction (text adventures). If you liked The Bryant Collection or “Backup,” voting for them in this round might be something you want to do.

Of course, there have been several other awesome IF pieces released this year. I need to play more of them myself before I can make a proper decision.

Ludus Novus 017: The Rules of the Game

In this podcast episode, I present and discuss my definition of the word “game.” In short, a game is an interactive simulation that provides metrics which allow a user to track progress toward a goal. Listen on to hear why Microsoft Paint is a game and why winning and losing are really the same thing.

I’d love to hear what you think! Comment if you have any opinions on the things I discuss in this episode.

On The Bryant Collection

I learned an important lesson a week or so ago: don’t release games on April Fool’s Day. I thought that April 1st would be a fun day to release The Bryant Collection, with its hard-to-believe premise and odd approach. The result? I think a lot of folks saw the post, said “ha, ha!” and assumed the whole thing was a joke. The biggest reaction I got was a flame from someone who’d evidently had one too many websites change up their CSS stylesheets on him.

It’s a shame, because despite the premise and backstory, The Bryant Collection is a real game, and one that I poured a lot of effort and heart into. But I haven’t gotten a single review, game entry on an IF site, or even a comment from someone who’s played the game. The only e-mail I’ve gotten about it is from my parents.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t be surprised. Mixing truth and fiction is risky enough when it’s not on a day dedicated to lies, and the games from the Spring Thing were released at almost the exact same time. The Spring Thing is probably the second or third biggest IF event of the year, so naturally Bryant would be overshadowed by those games, especially if it’s dismissed as a joke.

This post isn’t a cry for attention or anything. I just wanted to share my reactions when a game doesn’t get very well-received, since I always post when a game gets positive reactions.

The Bryant Collection Released

Right on the heels of my last release, here’s my April game, The Bryant Collection. This one is a bit of a cop-out; it’s not actually my game. Instead, it’s a translation of someone else’s work into interactive fiction.

An excerpt from my release post on RGIF:

A few months ago, I found an old strongbox at a garage sale. The box was full of papers written by a woman named Laura Bryant. The majority of the stuff in the box was a collection of what she called “story worlds.”

These story worlds are akin to interactive fiction or roleplaying games; they’re designed for one player and one mediator who serves as the parser or the game master. The earliest date on a story world in the box is 1964, which means these works predate Crowther and Woods’s Adventure, Dungeons & Dragons, or Wesely’s Braunstein. The Bryant Collection contains the five stories that I found the most interesting and feasible to convert to IF:

  • “The End of the World” is a story about lunch.
  • “Morning in the Garden” is a story about dealing with annoying people.
  • “Tower of Hanoi” is a rather interesting little puzzle, but not what you think. It came with a sort of feelie in the strongbox, which is included as an IF object.
  • “Going Home Again” is a story about growing up.
  • “Undelivered Love Letter” is a story about airports.

Download The Bryant Collection.

For more information, including links to interpreters that will run the game, see the game page.

Majesty Wins JIG Art Game Audience Award

Casual Gameplay/Jay Is Games has released their Best of Casual Gameplay 2008 awards, and my game “(I Fell In Love With) The Majesty of Colors” won the Audience Award for the Best Interactive Art or Webtoy (Browser) category! I got 15.9% of the popular vote, beating out such awesome games as “I Wish I Were the Moon” and Coil. Those two games shared the editors’ award for the same category, which was entirely deserved.

Other games in the awards that caught my eye:

Continue reading Majesty Wins JIG Art Game Audience Award

Hope for the Future

Premier video game industry news site Gamasutra just released their top 5 indie games of the year. Number one is Daniel Benmergui’s wonderful “I Wish I Were the Moon,” which I’ve mentioned before. Number two is “Everybody Dies,” third-place winner in the 2008 Interactive Fiction Competition and a game I’ve yet to play. These two selections give me a great deal of hope for the future of interactive entertainment.

Continue reading Hope for the Future

The Terror of Choice

As I sat at my desk sketching out a puzzle structure for my next game and listening to the latest episode of Radiolab, “Choice,” I started to think about complexity in goal trees. Just about any game’s structure can be represented as a tree (a partially-ordered set, really) of goals, some of which are required before others.

For the simplest of games, this tree consists of a straight line of nodes labeled something like “Reach Checkpoint 1,” “Reach Checkpoint 2,” and “Beat Boss.” Games with a hint of nonlinearity, however, can often have rather complicated goal trees. The simple tree has a branching factor of one. Each action, or node, has only one successor action. The game Planescape: Torment, on the other hand, has a branching factor of more than ten in some places, such as just after the player reaches the Clerk’s Ward. There are many the player can go or quests she can pursue, each separate and rather complex in its own right.

I’ve been playing The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion lately, and that is a game with a branching factor. Each town has four or more quests connected to it, in addition to the main quest, which itself sometimes branches into subquests. Add to this the guilds, of which there are at least four, and the game gets a bit intimidating for me. I hesitate to even mention the plugins and expansions. I walked through the door to the Shivering Isles, a whole new country with its own central plot, towns and sidequests. I think I lasted about fifteen minutes before I retreated back to Cyrodiil, overwhelmed. Oblivion‘s branching factor is a bit too large for my tastes. So what, then, is the optimal branching factor? Let’s look at some examples.

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The Most Important Games

“The 99th” over at Play This Thing! posted a list of the top ten most important games in history. It includes such things as family, fiat money, and Passage. I’ve got issue with a lot of things about this list.

First, as with most top ten lists, there is an issue of definition. What is a game? The much-lauded Chris Crawford has claimed that a game must be made for money, must have a goal, and must allow you to attack your opponent, among other things. By this definition, The Sims, Tetris, and the original release of Cave Story are not games. Many other definitions of games include “fun,” “play,” or “artificial,” although mathematical game theorists would vehemently argue otherwise. Let’s see if we can come up with a definition in the spirit of The 99th’s list.

For the purposes of this post, a “game” is a goal-oriented activity with artificially-established rules that are shared among multiple participants, called “players.” Players need not play simultaneously or adversarially. By “historically important,” I choose to mean “most significantly contributed to and/or were most necessary for the existence of the sort of games I discuss on this site.” As an initial disclaimer: I am not a historian. Now, for my version of The 99th’s list.

Continue reading The Most Important Games