September 16, 2004

Future Boy!

by Nick Montfort · , 4:16 pm

Future Boy Perfectly apropos of Andrew’s recent post about, and the ensuing discussion of, interactivity and comics, is the release of a demo of Future Boy!, [36.3MB].

Future Boy! is by Kent Tessman’s The General Coffee Company Film Productions. Kent and the company also made Apartment Story, a feature film that was aired on Bravo!, and developed Hugo, a powerful interactive fiction development system with multimedia capabilities, which just reached version 3.1. (See the IF Archive for the new version, which should appear there shortly.) Future Boy! is written in Hugo, which is quite cross-platform, so the demo, like the game itself, will run out of the box on Windows, Macintosh, Linux, BeOS, Palm OS, and Pocket PC; source code is available for porting to other platforms, too, or you can use a Hugo interpreter that has been ported. Future Boy!, in development since 2000, employs comic-style art, voice talent, and natrual langauge input … where have I heard of such things being used before … but the framework is that of a traditional adventure game. Although I’ve only played the demo briefly as yet, it looks amusing and looks like it integrates text and images (and animated images) in a very interesting way.

9 Responses to “Future Boy!”

  1. hanna Says:

    While the concept is indeed interesting, I must admit that I am disappointed by the implementation. Far from being engaging and thought-provoking, my experiences with Future Boy! (and admittedly I have as yet only devoted around 20 minutes to the demo) indicate that the game is rather poorly implemented. Consequently I find myself left with little more than a sense of frustration and a desire to play something that, while being less integrative, exhibits a greater attention to detail. Ah well…

  2. Scott Says:

    Yeah, I like it but also have some of the same problems with it that I often have with IF works — there are things available in the fictional world (images) that you can see but not work with, and the usual limited vocabulary. Of course, it took me about 10 minutes just to figure out that I need to “wake up” to stop falling.

  3. mark Says:

    The “figuring out what you need to do” is one of my pet peeves about IF in general. I understand that people would like to give the illusion of a fully-open world with full NLP, but since that’s obviously not the case yet, it’s really frustrating to have to type random verbs until I figure out that what I needed to do was search the shelf, not examine it (or perhaps jump down rather than drop). Of course, giving the user a list of verbs with precise meanings makes it seem very old-style adventure-game-ish, but I’m not sure the alternative “you can type any English sentence, but only some of them actually work, and which ones that is remains a surprise!” is much better.

    As far as this particular game goes though, I rather like what it’s trying to do, although admittedly I haven’t played it for more than 20 minutes either.

  4. andrew Says:

    Mark, yes, the status quo of the text-based IF interface is something we’ve touched upon (ranted about) some in the past — here’s a comment as part of a larger discussion about agency in IF; also here’s a post with some wider thoughts on improving the IF form.

    As you suggest, one approach is to tell the player the full list of commands available, which has its pluses and minuses.

    Another approach, which some of us are working towards, is to design the IF characters/world itself to robustly handle non-understood or partially-understood text from the player, to never simply reject the player’s input with “I don’t understand”. This probably easier to accomplish when text is only required for speaking dialog, and not for manipulating objects or navigation (i.e., a graphical world, with language solely for dialog). Dialog is inherently messy and ambiguous, and its interpretation can fail gracefully, whereas object manipulation is less so and probably requires stricter, non-ambiguous commands. (Although ideally textual object manipulation commands could be made a lot more robust as well.)

  5. nick Says:

    The related “guess the verb” problem has been often discussed on — googling the group turns up more than 400 mentions of the phrase. Mainly, “guess the verb” describes a situation where you know what action is necessary but you don’t know how to express that. If you don’t know what action is necessary and you’re trying things at random, you’re “flailing.”

    “Flailing” can occur whether you use a text interface or not, and the results can be even more absurd without it. I remember clicking around the screen randomly in the first Legend of Kyrandia and being extremely surprised when my character stopped, laid down a trail of jewels, hid behind a rock, and waited to kidnap a passing gnome. Ah yes, just what I was thinking.

    The essential problem with “flailing” is not at the interface level. The problem is that the interactor doesn’t have any idea of what meaningful action is. (Unless they’re just failing around to see how the program reacts or for some other reason unrelated to enjoying the game in the usual way, of course.) For instance, why not root around in my room examining and toying with things at the beginning of Future Boy!, since there’s no reason to do anything else? I don’t think that just “implementing” everything in the world solves this problem by itself, although richer simulation is probably better if it fits well with the overall riddle of an interactive fiction. If you just fill out the simulation without changing anything else, though, you’ll just be allowing the user to do 50,000 meaningless things, never getting any closer to understanding the principles behind the strange world that the player character is in.

    Instead, it makes sense to make the simulation adequate while also providing scenarios that compel action, and while supporting the interactor in puzzling out the IF world, making this challenging, but at an appropriate level of difficulty.

    I think “figuring out what you need to do” in the more general sense is essential to good IF. If it really bothers you at this more general level, it’s probably a sign that IF isn’t for you. Similarly, if you don’t enjoy learning about a character’s experiences, encounters, and perspectives on the world, novels aren’t going to do much for you. “Figuring out” is what makes Varicella, Savoir-Faire, Bad Machine, Spider and Web, Curses, Christminster, A Mind Forever Voyaging, and a bunch of other IF work very powerful and effective. In the best IF, though, the interactor is given a rich and enjoyable way to figure out a strange world, and isn’t stuck trying to operate a interface.

  6. Michael Says:

    Ahh, just catching up on this thread now, after I’d already made the post about games and NLU. Obviously, from that post, and from our work on Facade, I do find NLU in interactive experiences an important area of game research from both a technology and design perspective. However, different architectures afford different designs. The kind of “figuring out what you need to do” that takes place in IF, and that Nick has characterized as the trope of the riddle, follows from an architecture that segments the experience in terms of places, objects, and movement between places, with an NLU system that correspondingly understands input as verbs performed on objects. If you look at the knowledge representations inside Facade, you see a very different segmentation than places and objects, and an NLU system that doesn’t parse a sentence in terms of verbs performed on objects. Correspondingly, the “figuring out what you need to do” is different than what takes place in IF (isn’t every interactive experience some form of “figuring out what’s going on”, which includes “figuring out what to do”) and experientially feels different than IF. The constellation of design+technology that characterizes IF is only one example of NLU-based interaction.

  7. mark Says:

    Well, the sort of “figuring out what you need to do” that takes place in IF commonly isn’t the conceptual sort, which I’d be fine with. One part of it is the “guess the verb” problem, which is a very frustrating sort of figuring out what you need to do, because in a sense you already know and just can’t get the game to actually do it. But even beyond that, there’s often a feeling of I know the author has one particular thing in mind here, and I can’t figure out what it is. That sort of breaks the interactive component for me, since it ends up becoming more of a meta-game of now let’s think: what would the author have had in mind when he/she wrote this part? And it’s usually anticlimactic when I figure it out (either randomly or through a walkthrough); something like having to move a bed I had never gotten around to moving, after which the rest of the story starts getting back on track again.

    My personal bias sort of view of it is that filled-in worlds combined with a richer way for the game to take your actions and weave them into the story would help a lot: there shouldn’t be one action I have to do to advance the story, or even five that I can choose from; there should be a near-infinite number, and they should be woven in somehow. Sort of the “dungeons & dragon” model, where you can do whatever you want, and the gamemaster accomodates it into the story as appropriate. There’s tradeoffs: perhaps you simply want to ignore some useless actions, but you shouldn’t ignore all of them besides a prescripted set you’ve coded the game to accept. Ideally, anyway.

  8. nick Says:

    Michael, you’re right of course that the framework of interactive fiction (the one Future Boy! uses, although in a less riddle-like way than I’d like) is not the only one for interaction. Interactive drama and perhaps also a less dramatic sort of interactive conversation (of the chatterbot style) provide other examples.

    Mark, I agree that guessing what the author was thinking, at the low level of thinking of the right verb and imagining what the author would have wanted, can be a very uninteresting way to proceed, not only in IF but in other sorts of interactive experiences as well. The piece should have its own logic that can be grasped and and understood, whether that’s the logic of a riddle, of another sort of poem, of a drama, of a conversation, or of something else.

    I think richer simulation can offer good opportunities for better interactive experiences; I just don’t think that it will provide this unifying logic to a piece that lacks it. To try to link this to some of Brenda Laurel’s Aristotelian ideas that Michael has built upon: if there aren’t “formal causes” (roughly corresponding to overall purpose and motivations to proceed) supported by “material causes” (roughly, the simulation; the affordances for action that it provides), making the simulation much richer doesn’t solve the problem. If the formal and material causes do match up, making the simulation richer also doesn’t solve anything, but adds new affordances that don’t really serve any purpose. Although I’d prefer a rich simulation to a thin one, the best thing seems to have one that is suitable for the logic of the piece, whatever logic that is.

  9. nick Says:

    Paul O’Brian, SPAG editor and multi-IF-Comp-winner, offers a review of Future Boy! over at IF Review: “the game’s multimedia content is easily the most impressive I’ve ever seen in an independently produced text adventure … despite all the care and attention it obviously received, this game is still a flawed gem.”

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