Bully Pulpit

Sometimes teenagers commit suicide. It’s not always possible to figure out why, but we know that quite often when kids kill themselves it’s because they’re gay or transgendered and are unable to see how to get through another day while feeling those feelings.

We also know that quite often, kids who are perceived as different are bullied. One of the main reasons kids are perceived as different (though not, of course, the only one) is because they’re seen — correctly or incorrectly — as having a divergent sexual orientation or gender identity.

Ideally, the teachers and administrators in middle schools and high schools would be vigilant about suppressing bullying. Ideally, teachers and administrators would actively support the perception that different is not wrong or bad — it’s just different. Ideally, they would put a little extra energy into helping students who are different feel good about themselves. Feel pride, even.

Here’s where it gets sticky: There are thousands or millions of active, passionate adults in this country who are committed to preventing teachers and administrators from providing support and encouragement to gay and transgendered students. They pressure school boards across the country to forbid teachers to present homosexuality as something that is normal or acceptable. This leaves the school personnel with two difficult options: They can stand idly by while the bullying goes on, or they can risk being fired.

The sick, hate-filled people who are leaning on school boards to block any sort of open, accepting environment for gay and transgendered students consider themselves Christians. They feel sure that in allowing the bullying to go on unchecked, in creating an environment in which more unhappy teenagers will commit suicide, they’re doing God’s work.

I’m not a Christian, so I’m not well equipped to parse the theological niceties. If these disgusting people call themselves good Christians, I really have no choice but to take them at their word.

I’m aware, of course, that there are also millions of other Christians who take a much more tolerant view, who are happy to respect differences in gender identity and sexual orientation. Should I paint them with the same broad brush? Should I insist that Christianity is, in and of itself, an evil, corroding force?

Yes, I should. The problem is, the good Christians routinely give a free pass to the evil Christians. They could stand up forthrightly and saying, “No, that’s not Christianity. You people are not Christians at all.” But they don’t say that. Instead, they remain tactfully silent, or murmur quietly about differences of opinion. When it comes to “differences of opinion,” suddenly Christianity is a “big tent” where everybody (no matter what kind of slime they’re preaching) gets equal respect.

Where are the clergy who could stand up at meetings of the National Council of Churches and state forthrightly that conservative evangelical churches are not churches at all, that they’re terrorist organizations and should be summarily kicked out of the National Council of Churches and their leaders prosecuted for hate crimes? Where are those voices of reason?

If you can’t clean up your side of the street, folks, you really have no beef when I point out that you’re standing hip-deep in fresh steaming dogshit. As far as I’m concerned, “fresh steaming dogshit” and “Christianity” are synonyms. If you feel differently — if you feel sure I’m wrong about that — then you’d better break out the big shovel and start shoveling out the dogshit, because right now you’re wallowing in it.

Abstract vs. Concrete

Yesterday I was reading up on the Javascript programming language. Then after supper I resubscribed to Netflix and watched the first four episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, back to back. Both activities were fun, but the contrast was noticeable.

Why Javascript? Because I’ve been looking into the possibility of presenting interactive stories in a web browser. Ian Millington’s Undum system makes this possible — but Undum uses Javascript quite intensively, so I would need to know it a lot better than I do in order to create a story with Undum.

The goal is clear: I’d like to write stories and make them available for people to read. The stories themselves would be concrete experiences — just words on a page or screen, it’s true, but words stimulate the brain to imagine that real events are transpiring.

Same deal with Buffy: The reality (cameras, scripts, lighting, makeup, paychecks to the actors, carefully designed special effects) is an abstract apparatus, but the viewer has, in the end, a concrete experience. Mentally constructed, to be sure, but it’s an experience of “real” events, not an experience of the syntax of computer code, nor of camera angles and all the rest. If we notice camera angles and lighting while watching a movie or TV show, Read more

Undum & Vorple, Part III

What will interactive storytelling look like in the 21st century? Oops, we’re already 12 years into the 21st century. And yet the main authoring systems for interactive fiction still produce stories that rely on a computer user interface that was common and well understood in 1980.

Maybe it’s time for a paradigm shift. Do you suppose?

In the last couple of days I’ve glanced at a variety of new software tools designed for interactive storytelling, and/or stories created using said tools. Verdict, first, evidence afterward: Undum with Vorple is the clear winner.

Twine has a nice editing environment (it’s a bit like Quest), but Twine stories seem to want to clear the main display area and toss up entirely new text every time you click a link. Continuity of narrative in such a system is essentially zilch. Bad psychology — in essence, it’s even worse than what you get with an old-school command line interface.

The two ChoiceScript stories that I looked at were stunningly bad. It appears ChoiceScript is set up to collect the player’s characteristics based on what radio button the player clicks on in various menus of choices. Player characteristics — a relic of Dungeons & Dragons. Radio buttons — ugly.

Ren’Py might be a reasonable system if I were a graphic artist. I’m not. BloomEngine may be capable of delivering an effective browser-based story experience, but the game written by its creator neither looks attractive nor reads well; plus, the engine apparently relies on HTML 5 tags with a minimum of Javascript code, which seems a somewhat artificial limitation to me. If you’re going to build a race car, you don’t start with a bicycle frame.

John Ingold wrote a clickable story called “A Colder Light” using Inform 7 with some extensions. That development system may have some promise, but “A Colder Light” reads exactly like a 1980-era command line game (because that’s what it is). The sugar sprinkled on top is Read more

Undum & Vorple, Part II

No matter how attractive a technology may look, if it doesn’t do what you need it to do, it’s a doorstop.

After looking at Undum for a couple of days, I’ve concluded that it’s a doorstop. [Edit: Probably not true.] This saddens me, because it looks very enticing. As I detailed in my previous post, Undum is a way of delivering interactive stories in a web browser. It’s visually beautiful, requires no special knowledge of the reader, and can deliver stories to users on any platform that supports a modern browser — iPad, Linux, an old PC running Windows XP, whatever.

Using Undum, you create your story using Javascript and HTML 5. This is not precisely an author-friendly way of developing stories, but it’s manageable. These technologies are well understood and very powerful. If you want not only to create an interactive story but have it look good … folks, I hate to break it to you, but Inform, TADS, Quest, and the other authoring systems used for the past decade or so by authors of IF just ain’t gonna cut it. All of them display their stories in app interfaces that are, frankly, ugly. And not very user-configurable, either. So Undum would appear to be a super, super choice for the author who cares about giving the reader a gratifying experience.

But between the dream and the reality falls the shadow.

Web browsers are, very sensibly, designed in such a way that web pages can’t read files on your hard drive or write files to your hard drive. If such activities were allowed, the whole world of modern computing would collapse. Your personal computer would quickly become a hornet’s nest of malicious stuff. A web page can store a small piece of data (called a cookie) in a special folder, but only that page can read the cookie. Other restrictions quite likely apply.

As a result, Undum has no way to allow readers to store their progress through a story. Okay, technically it has one store point, which you can create using the Save button. The next time you load that Undum story, it will automatically fast-forward to the point where you saved the cookie. But you can’t save multiple store points within your story. [Edit: It turns out HTML 5 provides a facility called localStorage, which is plenty big enough to store lots of save points. Undum just hasn’t implemented a full save/restore feature, that’s all.]

This is a problem because Undum is designed specifically to produce interactive stories. In an interactive story, the reader Read more

Undum & Vorple

Technologies — there are so many! How do you pick and choose what you’ll use?

Last week I finished writing an interactive fiction game called “The White Bull.” This game has been entered in the 2012 Spring Thing competition, which will be open for players/voters on April 6. I’m pleased with the way the game came together, and I hope players will be too. I used the TADS 3.1 development system, which is very sophisticated. Almost intimidatingly so.

It has to be said, though: What TADS produces is, at the end of the day, 1980s-style text adventures. Granted, it has all sorts of advanced features, but the way you encounter the story as a player is, you type commands at the command prompt, exactly the way you probably did when you were playing Zork or Adventure on your Commodore-64. The same is true of Inform 7, a far more popular development system than TADS.

This user interface is very good for certain things, but not so good for others. The author can implement complex actions that are not immediately obvious to the player — for instance, something like ‘put the gerbil in the microwave’. This could be an effective puzzle, assuming you don’t mind a little cruelty to small animals. The player has to conceive of the action and then try it.

A user interface that relies on clickable links can’t easily be used to implement this type of puzzle. If the menu of allowed actions for the gerbil includes ‘put in microwave’, then Read more

Big Sky

Today I’m toying with the idea that paranoid delusions are the only rational response to the world we live in. Attempting to understand what’s going on around us in a sensible, scientifically responsible manner is just too discouraging. I mean, how anybody in the Republican Party could possibly take themselves seriously, without either throwing up or collapsing in helpless laughter — there really is no way to make sense of it.

I’ve been forced, rather against my better judgment, to conclude that space aliens are doing something really awful to Republicans’ brains.

This theory has the advantage that it’s tidy. We can’t possibly understand the motives or methods of space aliens, so we don’t need to try to explain what they’re up to. It’s enough to grasp that they’re doing it. Because, really, what other explanation could there be?

You may say, “But Jim, there are no space aliens! All of those purported sightings are either deliberate lies by attention-seekers or the result of bad brain wiring. Those thousands of photographs of flying saucers — all of them are 100% fake.” That’s an interesting theory, of course, but it has difficult features. For one thing, it’s Read more