June 30, 2009

Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter Released

from Post Position
by @ 8:34 pm
Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter

Michael Gentry, author of the stunning, large-scale, Lovecraftian interactive fiction Anchorhead, has another full-scale IF, his first since that award-winning game came out in 1998.

Dave Cornelson, who founded the Speed IF competitions and the IFWiki, has led his interactive fiction company, Textfyre, to publish its first game.

The game that is so notable in both of these ways is Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter. It is available for either Windows or Mac for about $25. As with all of the planned offerings of Textfyre, this game is directed at a specific audience: young readers wanting to experience the pleasures of reading while playing computer games. The hope, no doubt, is that parents will appreciate the fun and literacy-enhancing qualities of interactive fiction.

June 27, 2009

Walking to the Moon

and perhaps he had a hand in a gaming classic

June 25, 2009

Welcome to Iraq Durkadurkastan

Call of Duty 4 in the Middle East
Full Spectrum Warrior in Zekistan
50 Cent in the Middle East where "the gangsters rule"

In the last couple of months, I’ve been utilizing my Gamefly subscription to the fullest. I’ll talk about that in another post (sneak peek: I heartily recommend it). It’s allowed me to play games I otherwise wouldn’t have done, including Call of Duty 4 and 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand.

Both games take place in a fictional Middle Eastern country, whereby “fictional” we can replace “Iraq, but we didn’t want to say that.” This is a trend that began with Full Spectrum Warrior, a game released only half a year after Saddam Hussein’s capture, which was set in “Zekistan”. This isn’t all that far off Team America’s “Durkadurkastan.”

June 22, 2009

Free Realms Introduces Referees

Referee Schwarz is undeniably stylish

Only a few short weeks after I wrote about policing game spaces, Free Realms introduces the referees. They seem to act as embodied Game Masters, helping out the good players, while the embodiment makes sure the bad ones know they’re being watched.

A great solution.

June 20, 2009

The Underdogs Have a Home

from Post Position
by @ 1:02 pm

Famous abandonware site Home of the Underdogs is back, or at least quickly returning to its earlier state, at http://www.hotud.org/. Different appearance, same games, same mission and community.

Update, June 22: HotU is being revived on several sites, as Clara noted in comments: http://www.homeoftheunderdogs.net and http://hotu.pratyeka.org are others.

Craig Reynolds on Crowds and Emergent Teamwork

This past January, Craig Reynolds from Sony’s research group in Foster City gave a presentation at UC Santa Cruz on current challenges in creating computational crowds, especially those where the members of the crowd are cooperating to perform some task. A video of the talk can be viewed here:


As a contrast to the recent talk by Mark Henne from Pixar, this talk focused on the underlying algorithmic difficulty of creating the desired algorithmic behavior. Mark’s talk focused more on how to integrate behavior into an existing pipeline, and challenges with ensuring the filmmakers retained artistic control over the procedurally generated scene.

June 19, 2009

Games for girls segment on Today show

This segment on the Today show, aired June 18, 2009, talks about how the games industry is increasingly focusing on girls and women in game creation and marketing. While the segment has its cringeworthy moments (floating talking head in a video game world, ew!), it mostly provides a good overview of current industry thinking about designing and marketing games for girls and women. Interviews with women on the floor of GDC are generally very good.

My daughter Tatum is shown in the segment (she’s in the light blue top with brown straps). She was invited up to Ubisoft in San Francisco for an afternoon during GDC for the taping of the segment. They were great hosts!

Communitizing Electronic Literature

from Scott Rettberg
by @ 4:54 am

Digital Humanities Quarterly 3.2 (Spring 2009) has been published. The issue includes a cluster of articles on finishing digital humanities projects, edited by Matt Kirschenbaum, a cluster of articles on data mining, edited by Mark Olsen, three articles including my piece “Communitizing Electronic Literature“, and a review by Johanna Drucker of Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination.

June 18, 2009

Game Designers Design Players Too

A sketch for a cute little dungeon crawl

A sketch for a "cute little dungeon crawl"

I’ve got a whole philosophy of game design I’m sitting on here, but today I’d like to share just one little provocative tidbit: game designers design players too.

June 17, 2009

A Machine to Play Pitfall

from Post Position
by @ 4:30 pm

Carlos Diuk, Andre Cohen, and Michael L. Littman of Littman’s RL3 Laboratory at Rutgers devised a new way of doing reinforcement learning, using Object-Oriented Markov Decision Processes, a representation that looks at a higher level than usual and considers objects and interactions. They had a paper about this at last year’s International Conference on Machine Learning (ICML). Better yet, they demonstrated their OO-MDPs representation by using it in a system that learned to play Pitfall in an emulator. I don’t believe that the system got all the treasures, but watching it play and explore the environment was certainly impressive. It seems like the technique is an interesting advance. By trying it out on a classic game, the researchers suggest that it will have plenty of “serious” uses in addition to being used in video game testing and in game AI.

June 16, 2009

You Have To Mine The Ore

Here’s a nice, simple game prototype that explores the core movement, inventory, and timing mechanics of Motherload that took just 10 minutes to design and 60 minutes to program using our new design tool.  Rather, this is the half of a nice, simple game prototype that supports human play testing, but there is more to it than that.

Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory’s Knife Edge

Chaos Theory looks great even now, mainly due to its strong filter effects

Chaos Theory looks great even now, mainly due to its strong filter effects

Spurred on by the delicious gameplay for Splinter Cell: Conviction at E3, as well as somehow managing to contract a cold in the Californian summertime, I found myself downloading Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory from the Xbox Originals service. I expected to be underwhelmed by the graphics, as it’s often easy to let graphical fidelity get in the way of a play experience (for those unconvinced, I dare you to try and play Final Fantasy VII again!).

I am pleasantly surprised to say I am wrong: this game remains a great, thrilling experience.

June 15, 2009

Mark Henne talk at UCSC

On Friday, May 29, 2009, Mark Henne from Pixar came to UCSC and gave a talk on crowds in the movie Wall-E. You can watch the video here:


I was impressed by the complexity of the AI underlying the characters that comprise the crowds, another reminder of just how complex seemingly simple real-world behaviors can be. I was also struck by how the entire process was optimized to ensure that the artists could, if desired, take a single character from a crowd and manually change its look and behavior. This is consistent with the entire filmmaking process at Pixar, which is optimized for complete artistic control over the end product. Games, in contrast, are much more willing to accept the limitations of the game engine being used.

June 12, 2009

The Vision’s Still Active

from Post Position
by @ 1:38 pm

Roller Derby, early Activision style

June 11, 2009

Playing the Irish Game, Talking About Train

from Post Position
by @ 5:40 pm

I got to hear Brenda Brathwaite speak about her recent work yesterday. As you know if you’re read the Escapist article about her board games, she’s been developing a series of non-digital games about very serious subjects: The middle passage, Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland, and the Holocaust – so far. I also got to talk with her and some others about Train (upper right) at the GAMBIT Game Lab and got to play against her there in Siochan Leat (lower left). The latter, also known as “The Irish Game,” is a very playable game, although in my limited experience, it seems like it may have too many symmetries. I tried to play for a draw (since that seemed like a “fair” outcome), forgot about a rule and fell behind, and then caught up again to draw the game in the end. Since Train was “spoiled” for me and others, we talked about the play that had taken place in other sessions, and ended up having a very interesting discussion. I have no problem with games that rely on the players being naive, and which can be played only once, as long as that one experience is valuable. The verbal game Max and Nora is like this, and the way that some people play the party game Psychiatrist is similar, also. The latter game can easily be generalized, though, and can be endless fun (and insightful) if it is. Train is about something quite different: the drive for efficiency that obscures the ethics of one’s action. It is meant to provoke substantial conversation, and it does that well, helping us think about the nature of play and the design of games as well as about an important historical episode.

“Platforms” and Positioning

from Post Position
by @ 1:46 pm

Tarleton Gillespie, author of Wired Shut: Copyright and the Shape of Digital Culture, presented an interesting paper at MIT’s Media in Transition 6 conference – one that is helpfully available online, and which is called “The Politics of ‘Platforms.’”

Gillespie considers the way that YouTube and other companies in the business of “content hosting” have positioned themselves as offering “platforms” – a stance that has populist benefits and which at least has the potential to distance these companies from liability for material they serve up. Interestingly, Gillespie finds that the computational sense of platform pre-dates this Web 2.0 and content-delivery sense. Admittedly, that sense, too, is a relatively new way of thinking about platform, and the most recent OED sense. Gillespie quotes this fine blog post by Marc Andreessen:

June 10, 2009

1 vs 100: Mob Rule After The Death of the Quiz Show

The avatars in 1 vs 100 are good and expressive

The avatars in 1 vs 100 are nicely expressive

All last week, Microsoft has been trialling 1 vs 100, an Xbox Live version of the popular game show. For those uninitiated, the real 1 vs 100 pits a contestant, dubbed The One, against 100 other people, called The Mob. All players answer each question. If a member of the Mob gets it wrong, they’re out of the game. The more The One can knock out of the game by successfully answering questions, the more money she can win if she walks away. If The One gets it wrong, it’s game over.

June 7, 2009

Guardian Hails IF, Novelists

from Post Position
by @ 12:33 pm

Keith Stuart’s provocative article in The Guardian plugs modern-day interactive fiction and suggests that novelists should be more involved in the making of video games, as they have been in the past. The article is on the right track. There is certainly reason for video game companies to license, or, less frequently, collaborate with those who make movies. But there are lots of things that games can do, and novelists could bring interesting perspectives, skills, and art to games – even they aren’t text-based interactive fiction. Of course, the right match has to be made and the writer has to be persuaded that video games are serious enough. I suggest Ubisoft grab Paul Auster, a dizzying writer. If he didn’t mind the association that come with writing and co-directing the movie Smoke, video games should be no problem.

June 5, 2009


from Post Position
by @ 9:39 am
Poemland, Chelsey Minnis, Wave Books, 2009

Poemland, Chelsey Minnis, Wave Books, 2009

Minnis, confronting poetry, hurls a fruit salad. The pages of the eleven sections of this book have only a few lines each, most ending in ellipses. The images (”getting hit with a folding chair / And being held by your braids…”) accumulate and converse (”I’ll chop your head off! / And I’ll carry it around by the hair…”), commenting on various vague situations and on poetry (”It’s like trying to drink a bottle of champagne in a roadside bathroom…”) You might imagine that it’s boring to hear poets yammer about writing poems and being poets (”If you open your mouth to start to complain I will fill it with whipped cream…”). Not so. Via references to fashion and offbeat interpersonal statements, the lines of Poemland connect the concerns of our poetry subculture (poverty, recognition, originality, connection to the past, authenticity) to culture more broadly. The book is fun to read from line to line, too (”With this book I have made a very expensive joke…”) and is beautifully and aptly designed.

Notes on Jesper Juul’s Speech @ Tilt: on today’s debates in video games studies

from tiltfactor
by @ 8:33 am


Juul believes that there’s something missing from academic game studies.


We are beginning to understand that games are not static artifacts. Games are dynamically created and changed by the players who engage with them and the cultures within which they are played. Each play session is a completely different experience with different motivating factors and very different meanings.

Games can be:
-rule based systems that you master
– fictional worlds that you imagine
– social phenomena that you play with other people
– self-expressions that show who you are.

June 4, 2009

CALC-09, Afternoon

from Post Position
by @ 4:19 pm

The Workshop on Computational Approaches to Linguistic Creativity has just concluded. I posted about the morning; here are my notes on the afternoon talks.

The first item for the afternoon was my invited talk, “Curveship: An Interactive Fiction System for Interactive Narrating” I worked a while to provide the paper to accompany my talk, trying to introduce IF, explain the basics of narrative variation, and get into at least some of the technical details of my system, including the string-with-slots representation, which I’ve been working on a great deal recently. I also tried to include handy references and pointers. Incidentally, I’ve been meaning to post more about Curveship, and I’d love to hear any questions you have about it at this point, even before I’ve properly introduced the system on this blog.

CALC-09, Morning

from Post Position
by @ 2:55 pm

The Workshop on Computational Approaches to Linguistic Creativity (CALC-09) is taking place now at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

In the first session on metaphors and eggcorns, researchers reported on using natural language understanding techniques in innovative ways:

Beata Beigman Klebanov presented on the use of a topic model (LDA, latent Dirichlet allocation) to detect the most obvious or deliberate types of metaphor, which are discussions of one domain the terms of another and which were annotated by people in this experiment. For different k, metaphorical uses were found to be less frequent in the k most topical words in the discourse overall.

June 2, 2009

Digital Dartmouth – Summer Courses!

from tiltfactor
by @ 6:03 am

Starting June 25th 2009!
Practicum in Digital Culture & New Media – 10A


In this workshop, we conduct research in developing, understanding and advancing a real-time rendering and video production technique based on video games. This special topics course will allow a group of students to study the techniques of Machinima. Throughout the term students will examine film techniques and story creation techniques that apply to the traditional film form, examine Machinima on a technical and aesthetic basis, and critique current examples of Machinima films. Outside of class, students  will collaborate, putting  forth a large amount of effort to write and produce their own Machinima.  Our course aims to investigate the underlying concepts of this new form of media, examining the relationship to animation, traditional cinema, and forms of popular culture. During the course, we will create Machinima projects while developing the theoretical framework around this approach as it relates to film and video, games, play, and participatory media.

June 1, 2009

Video Game Literacy

from tiltfactor
by @ 1:22 am

In his 2009 speech at Dartmouth, Jesper Juul argued that the list of games people choose to play is itself a form of self-expression. His “video game literacy” really does exist. People read, experience and cite games like they do printed text. Yet we don’t consider gamers to be ‘well-read’ just quite yet.


Why we don’t spend more time playing games? Why is experiencing games viewed as less beneficial than spending the same amount of time reading a book?

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