The March of the Mundane

Remember bookstores? Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s I used to browse in small indie bookstores and pick up quirky but provocative books, some of which are still on my shelves. Yesterday, moved by an obscure impulse, I pulled out Inner Visions, a 1979 paperback by Nevill Drury. I’m pretty sure I bought it because of the chapter on the Tarot.

I don’t remember a word of what’s in the book, and it’s not clear I’m going to sit down and read it this month. What prompted me to mention it was the misguided optimism in the Introduction. When Drury was writing this book, the term “counter-culture” could still be used, and with a straight face. Experiments with psychedelic drugs were taken seriously by intelligent people. In the Introduction, he mentions the album covers of Roger Dean, notes “the relationship of the fantasy art on record sleeves to the electronic inner-space music which it often represents,” and suggests that “these forms of modern music represent one facet of the contemporary reaction against scientism and the search for what [Theodore] Roszak has termed the visionary sources of our culture.”

The question I’m asking myself is, what happened? How did a cultural movement that seemed to promise a change for the better get so thoroughly derailed? Why, today, do we roll our eyes and cringe with embarrassment when we encounter Drury’s enthusiasm for magical consciousness and “a truly open-ended cosmology”?

What happened, for starters, was Read more

Black, with Cream and Sugar

Non-stationary art got a big boost in 1930, When Alexander Calder invented the mobile. Now that the computer is ubiquitous, the possibilities for non-stationary art — interactive or simply involving unpredictable and non-repeating motion — are staggering. Okay, computer screens can’t do real 3D, and a mobile is real 3D. But even so, the sky’s the limit.

I’ve noted before that if interactive fiction has any hope of being taken seriously as an art form, it’s going to have to present a modern, attractive user interface. To be both attractive and deliverable to users, it will need to run in a standard Web browser. And that means that IF authors who don’t wish to be ghettoized or marginalized are going to have to come to grips, in some way, with Javascript.

The same could be said about almost any digital art form, not just IF. Sure, you can upload your photos to Flickr or your music tracks to Soundcloud, but at that point your audience will encounter that user interface, which may well detract from the experience you would like to convey. You’ll have no control over the presentation. And presentation matters.

The same can be said of conventional interactive fiction played in a browser-based interpreter. Yes, it can be played over the internet, but as an author you still have damned little control over the presentation. If you want that control, you will have to roll your own interface in Javascript (or spend a lot of money hiring somebody who can do it for you).

What I’m discovering today about Javascript is still rather preliminary — these are my impressions, and should not be taken as gospel. I may be wrong. But I’m learning some stuff. I can list seven different reasons why Javascript is problematical, if not Read more

Something New

Last night I took a look at a graphics programming system called Processing. It’s quite groovy. I had been dimly aware of it before, but I think I sort of rolled my eyes and muttered, “Just what I need — another software toy.” But I enjoy hobbyist-level computer programming, and this week I’ve been pondering what I might want to do with it. Processing offers some intriguing possibilities.

Csound is programming, but it’s not a very good fit for my own music composition preferences. Interactive fiction is programming, but I’ve become disenchanted with both the traditional IF delivery systems and the possibilities for meaningful storytelling within an interactive framework. Javascript running in a browser is an extraordinary resource, but what on Earth would I do with it?

Dave Phillips posted a link on the Csound mailing list to a new piece that he did using a system called AVSynthesis. I liked the piece — it’s not my style, but it evokes a definite mood. But when I gazed upon the web page for AVSynthesis, it was pretty clear I would never be able to fight my way through what might loosely be called the documentation.

Processing seems to be very well documented. It’s in active development, has a large user community, and does some spiffy things. Basically, you use it by writing code in Java. The code itself is easy to write and easy to understand. You can display and animate 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

Sounds Good

There’s nothing new in the world. Everything has been done before. The idea of including music in a text adventure game may seem a bit eccentric — but of course graphic computer games have had music since the very beginning. So why not?

Even novels have had music. At some point — it would have been at least 20 years ago — Ursula Le Guin released a science fiction book that had a bind-in music CD. At least, that’s my dim recollection. I may even have owned the book at one time.

Right now I’m working on a new text game, which is due for release around April 1st. Also, I just finished writing a review of Propellerhead Reason 6 for Keyboard. I have plenty of other great music software on my hard drive, of course, but it occurred to me that it would be fun to write and record some 30-second music cues for the game using Reason exclusively.

Short cues are desirable because in an interactive game you can’t control how long the player stays in any one location. Writing longer music selections that can crossfade when the player moves from one location to another is technically feasible, but it’s a lot of extra work. What’s interesting about 30-second cues, I find, is that you really don’t have time to develop an idea. The music is just a gesture. It suggests a mood, and then it tiptoes away.

If you’re a graphic artist and would like to add yet another dimension to the game, I’d love to hear from you. This particular story doesn’t lend itself to photos, so I won’t be able to do my own graphics. A few illustrations would be a wonderful addition. The game will be released as freeware, so there’s no money to pay an artist. Well, maybe I could shake loose a few bucks. You might make as much as 50 cents an hour at it if you work fast. Tempting, I know. Plus, you’ll get the satisfaction of contributing to a really cool game.

Ads on My Posts? WTF?

Usually I’m logged in when I visit my blog. As a result, I don’t necessarily see quite what others see when they visit. Only tonight did I happen to learn that when a visitor clicks on the title of a post so as to read the whole thing, they get an animated advertisement. Maybe even a video.

And there seems to be no close button, so the ad can’t be dismissed.

This is fuckin’ unforgivable. I am not a commercial site. I derive no income from Sears or whatever the fuck is being advertised. I was not advised by WordPress that they had instituted a new policy. I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do about it, other than stagger into the bathroom and toss my lunch. But some action is clearly called for.

Apologizing to my tiny readership? Well, yeah, but I’ve done nothing that I need to apologize for.

Folks — whatever you see advertised here, I’d really appreciate it if you would visit the nearest commercial outlet that provides the advertised product and urinate on the floor in front of the cash register. You can always claim it was an unfortunate accident.

Apparently the ads are intermittent. But just to prove that I’m not hallucinating:

Commercial Truck Season

Disklavier Dreams

This morning my friend Peter Giles — I don’t know his exact title, so we’ll call him the Communications Director for Yamaha Digital Music — announced a “strategic partnership” with a company called Zenph. I’ve been trying to decipher the claims that are being made about this partnership or product or whatever it is.

Peter’s post on Facebook said, “In my view, this new alliance is a game changer in the piano industry.” The phrase “game changer” is a red flag for any journalist reading the words of a communications director. What it typically means is, “This is a minor advance at best, so we’re going to trumpet it as loudly as we possibly can.”

The headline on PRWeb, on the press release to which Peter’s FB announcement links, says, “Yamaha and Zenph Form Strategic Partnership to Demonstrate Unlimited Potential of Yamaha Disklavier .” The phrase “unlimited potential” is another of those red flags. Let’s be clear: Nothing has unlimited potential, not even Read more

Stage Fark

In many human cultures down through history, music was something that lots of people did. In the United States, prior to the invention of the phonograph and the radio, families would gather around the piano in the evening and sing songs together.

Today, that tradition has pretty much died. Making music is a job for experts — and mostly, for the experts living in L.A., New York, Nashville, and London. Most people are content to listen. If you enjoy making music yourself, you’ll find that you’re competing against those very experts.

Why would a restaurant manager hire a local guitar duo, when it’s so much less hassle to pipe in recorded background music? No worries about the duo showing up, no worries that they’ll fumble around and do a poor job or play repertoire that’s inappropriate for the venue, no worries about auditioning a new act when the current act moves on. That’s the essence of the problem facing local musicians.

I play cello in two community orchestras. We play concerts. People buy tickets. Yes, local music still exists. It’s not exactly thriving, though. And playing a stringed instrument in an orchestra is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a creative act. Worse, it has begun to feel like a charming anachronism — rather like Read more