Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Active Fiction returns, now, on the other side of Main Street!

Back in May I reported (with perhaps a regrettable degree of detail) the exciting activities of The Action Fiction Project -- an exciting venture loosely affiliated somehow with the Vancouver Public Space Network (an organization that has brought me into other good times not related to the subject of this blog). In short, they commission neighbourhood-themed works of simple CYOA-style hyperfiction, with story nodes staggered throughout a part of town, urging adventurers to walk around to this intersection or that, looking for laminated cards on which the next portion of the story is printed. It's a great idea -- basically a low-tech ARG -- and one which shows great growth potential if piggybacked on to GPS or podcast technology. But for the time being, we're going low-fi -- for a hyperfiction experiment going live during the death of longtime Choose Your Own Adventure publisher and proponent R.A. Montgomery, simple seems a fitting homage.

These story nodes have been up for a couple of weeks now, and as the installation is time-limited, I don't know for how much longer they're going to remain accessible by the public. I have of course documented them for my private purposes, but you may be running out of opportunities to play the game in the field, as it was intended -- so if this interests you in the slightest, run, don't walk, to the SE corner of Main & 28th Avenue in Vancouver, BC. (I know, the weather isn't cooperating much. I had good luck during my three photo sessions.) Curiously, both instalments of the series to date have revolved around the Main & 25th area (a structural note: both also 20 sections long), but perhaps future episodes will venture further afield: start from the centre and work your way out!

Well, here I am. Oh, isn't that artwork curious! And -- hey, I say, what's that sign in the ground?

In Search of Little Mountain
by Sarah Higgins

Oh man. You should've paid better attention to the directions your friend game, you know how you are with getting lost. But you caught the curiosity in her voice -- Don't you wanna find this little mountain that's such a big deal - whole neighbourhood's named after it. It's a good point. So here you are, tiny map on a Post-It in your pocket. She said start at the cemetery, but you got off the bus too early and here you are [on] a street corner instead. As you wonder where to go, a bus passes...


Read more? Go to #2 -> Corner of John St & 28th

This must be the place!

OK, well, here we go!

OK, this looks promising... oh, in fact, looking a little closer reveals the next story node actually attached to the street sign's pole! I hope this junction offers an actual choice and not a fake-out like that last segment... a pity it's a little too far away to read while installed on this cozy little bench!

Ahh, "the calm of the cemetery". Either way, it hangs over us.

Those really are funereal cypresses in the Mountainview cemetery. This bit of frivolity about exploring near graveyards actually is set up just outside the cemetery grounds. In respect -- not for the deceased, but for the author, now that we've finally arrived at a choice junction, I'm going to lay off on documenting the contents of the story nodes, instead providing a little photo essay summarizing my pursuit of the rest of the story threads.

Found it! But it's very hard to read from this position.

Nobody said that playing this game through to 100% completion would be easy! There are real geographical risks and hazards in effect here!

The final story thread leads me to this unassuming neighbourhood business for its conclusion (a "best ending"?) -- but wait, what's that in the window?

A game well played! Hats off, Active Fiction Project! Now that I've learned it wasn't just a one-off, here's looking forward to the next one!

Humorously, this is what my smartphone tells me while auditing my pile of photos from the hunt. Google, I don't need your help to turn these photos into beautiful, interactive stories -- that's already what they're about!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Spare Set

Yes, yes, my friends, this blog has been a ghost town for quite a while now. I made a few steps forward but they were countered by steps back. On the technical side, my text editor's search-and-replace function stopped behaving reliably, which was a critical failure for my peculiar habit of hand-seeding hundreds of hyperlinks into existing texts. (Speaking of which, a recent chat with a friend who thinks this CYOA hobby of mine is cool but doesn't really understand it led to an idea of building bridges between texts describing the same historical situations but from different perspectives -- taking eg. A Tale Of Two Cities, Les Miserables, and Marat / Sade, and inserting choices within them allowing readers to continue their French Revolutionary reading from a related but totally removed new perspective. Very postmodern. I proposed a similar "megamix" approach to literature years earlier to a different friend, mashing up eg. The Last Temptation of Christ with the Biblical parts of the Master and Margarita, or making the WWII epic to end all epics by interlinking Gravity's Rainbow, Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse 5. But I digress.) New text editor, Notepad++, is now working much better than Editpad Lite did. The main problem is just one of free time: now that I'm working full-time in the daytime rather than part-time over graveyard shift, I'm spending both more hours at the worksite and a higher proportion of those hours engaged in ... work. (There's not always a full shift of tasks for overnighters, but think of late-night emergency workers as one would firemen hanging out near the pole in the firehall: they're not necessarily there to stop fires so much as to be available to stop whatever fires may arise on their watch. They are there to safeguard against a potentiality that periodically manifests and realises itself. But I digress.)

Then there are my toddler's molars. There are only so many minutes in the day and the number remaining after we take the necessary deductions from the time bank for work and handling a curious and energetic tot are slim and meagre -- and much still remains to be done in the sliver of daily time available. Cooking, cleaning, laundering, dog-walking. (And if you ask my partner, she will concede that sometimes I even do some of it!) I am my own worst enemy here, however, since I keep the burner on beneath several concurrent projects, consigning them all to a glacial pace. There's my video game ad blog, my band, and right now I'm grappling with a twofold challenge to assemble a 20th anniversary artpack release from members of my circa 1994 BBS-scene computer art group -- and to mount a retrospective exhibition of electronic art from that period in a gallery context. There are hundreds of sub-tasks with deadlines associated for any one of those distractions, but instead I find myself here at my hyperfiction blog. Why? I found a winner I need to share.

Interactive fiction to me were always text adventure games, >GET LAMP style with the parser. I knew for years I wanted to make them (actually in my teens, with help from said computer art compatriots, I did release two of them), and recently I brought about a much more modern effort into the world, a one-move text parser game with many endings, made for the song-themed ShuffleComp. I announced it and it sank like a rock: this is the oldest and most primeval of IF styles, but in this cultural ecosphere they're a bit like frogs: keeping on, but consigned to a niche of a niche. But when I crow about Choice of Games MCGs (multiple choice games, though they have moved past that descriptor), the signal gets amplified. When I found this Twine hyperfiction piece and Tweeted about it, numerous folks picked up the torch and carried it.

It's called The Spare Set, produced by a homelessness charity in the UK called "Shelter" and based on interviews with their clients. The gameplay premise is ingenious, returning the player to a particularly memorable moment in time where they were looking all over their house, alone, for some missing goods. What the player uncovers is, of course, a lifetime of memories and anecdotes, plus ominous foreshadowing (in the form of a letter from the bank announcing the increase of the mortgage rate by 2%). It's, in my estimation, a hugely successful portrayal of a middle-class family, spouse and kids, in their gradual descent from mortgage-paying homeowners into car-dwelling indigents. It helps to put a face on the homeless, and what that face shows is that these people are just like us, but for circumstance. It's hardly "fun", but it's important, and in my estimation it's quite effective, thus I recommend everyone try it out.

For reasons that are difficult to explain, portrayal of homelessness in video games is an old preoccupation of mine from way back, and this is a nice jewel in that dubious crown.

Monday, May 26, 2014

more about the Active Fiction Project

So here we are. At last report, I had ventured out into the darkness the first night I heard about this project to go and check out the story nodes, returning with a handful of blurry cameraphone pics and some story fragments. Knowing that this work was not only constrained in space -- preventing most of you readers from ever experiencing it at all -- but also in time, I knew I had to strike while the iron was hot and deputized an old friend, storygame enthusiast Daniel Wood, to go forth on my behalf and document the heck out of this work. One weekend later, every passage had been photographed (only the first is one of my nighttime shots, the rest by M. Wood) and now, these photos are the only way of experiencing the work now that the public installation of the laminated cards has been rolled back. (On the plus side, consolidating the pictures here is also a streamlined way of experiencing the story without having to tromp all over Hell's half-acre and back through Riley Park, though it might be argued that doing so was kind of the point of such a geo-centric piece.)

It has all now been converted for your enjoyment. I'm waiting to hear back from its author, talented UBC creative writer Nicole Boyce, but have boldly gone forth to share the piece in confidence that putting it out in public was really what it was about all along. (Besides, putting one of these up in my hometown is somewhat of a bold provocation. How was I supposed to not document it?)

Here you can see a story passage, number 13, hiding on the right centre of a community bulletin board. The story is a brief 20-passage affair with two main forks allowing readers to switch streams -- I believe it may even be possible to juggle them off of each other indefinitely, for a perpetual loop story presumably unintended by the author. A node map analysis may follow, but really it's concise enough to wrap your head around its structure just reading through. I didn't see this during my nighttime photo expedition, but you may note some stickers on the backs of the story placards shining reversed text through -- they are inviting random pedestrians who don't understand what they have just encountered to go to node #1 and start the story from the beginning.

[June 8: It has all been photographically documented for my own personal enjoyment! But, regrettably, in order to preserve the author's ability to later sell rights of first publication to a literary journal, you will not be seeing the full text of the piece here until such time as rights to subsequent republication can be arranged.]

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

the Active Fiction Project part 1

When I saw this I thought, "gee whiz, what a great idea!"


Everything depends on this. There is a right and a wrong choice. It's not 6 of one and a half dozen of another. This is it. Choose using your animal instincts. Don't make an intellectual decision, it'll be wrong. Just go.
<- This way


That way ->

Then I got kind of resentful that I'd missed Miranda July's 2008 installation "The Hallway", and that it had not been documented in such a way that I could experience it vicariously after the fact. And, oh yes, I was unlikely to have been traveling to Japan in order to experience it in the first place, it's true. Forget you, Miranda! But it turns out that other groups (like these Chromatin folks) have been mounting similar ventures in nearby places and... d'oh! That was here in my hometown just over a month ago and somehow the word never got to me -- I, who by all rights should have been the first one notified! But while listening to an unrelated news broadcast on the radio, I was tipped off to The Active Fiction Project and their still-warm CYOA installation on my city's fair streets. Rushing to their website, I found the location of the starting node and embarked upon an adventure...

The Raffle
Nicole Boyce

You know no one in this city, but you think you made a barista laugh today and it felt like winning an Oscar. In the mornings, you practice friendship pick-up lines. "Seen any good movies lately?" "How about a glass of cranberry juice?" When the boredom starts to itch, you walk downstairs. You could hardly believe this place, when your new roommate showed you. It's a mansion from the outside: wide-hipped with a balcony. But someone carved five apartments into it, Polly Pocket style.

Your roommate works twelve to twelve. He vacuums the bathtub. The only thing you have in common with him is the salt shaker. If someone had told you this would be your Friday night, restless with no plans, would you still have moved from Brantford to Vancouver? You step out into the street, hoping a walk will help.

. . .

Launched a couple of weeks ago by the Vancouver Public Space Network (and framed confusingly as a "Jane's Walk"), this story is a pilot work of site-specific interactive narratives telling tales informed by the neighbourhoods in which they are situated. I rushed out to document all of the story sections while they were still up, so that the story could still be enjoyed by the gamebook fans who subscribe to this blog, but in deference to the author or committee of creative writing students who assembled this work of real-life hyperfiction, I will refrain from spoiling it further until the option of experiencing the tale in person is no longer possible. Hats off, Active Fiction Project! Everyone these days is talking digital gamebooks, but these folks have taken the absolute opposite tack: gamebook as augmented-reality-game. Now I just regret I hadn't made one first, and wonder how I can get in line as an author.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Catching up... a CYO round-up of sorts

    You have brains in your head.
    You have feet in your shoes.
    You can steer yourself
    any direction you choose.
You're on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go.
From my daughter's bedtime read this evening, Dr. Seuss' final book Oh, The Places You'll Go! I love the way this phrase (sorry for the crapola cameraphone snap, the scanner was. not. cooperating) not only establishes the overall 2nd-person gamebook perspective premise, but even echoes the particular way Fighting Fantasy gamebooks stressed reader agency on the backs of their books: the Kickstarted Fighting Fantasy non-fiction book is even named YOU Are The Hero.

But I digress even before I begin! First off, many thanks to all of my silent readers for helping to push this improbable blog past 10 thousand views! Overall traffic is low-ish, as is activity on my end, but then once in a while I will get 50+ hits to an individual "post" in a single day -- I like to believe it indicates one player lawnmowing one of the hyperstories hosted here. These conversions are proving to enjoy Long Tails, which is fine -- this project can continue providing something of some (niche) interest even if I go into hibernation.

I know things have been slow around here lately. A handful of substantial works have stalled in late-stage conversion, there are slightly too many projects on the fly to give them all their due slice of my time, and by and large there just hasn't been as much time to fill -- regular work is better for my family than regular time off to webbify hyperfiction. Good for me, bad for you! My aspiration last year was to make a post here monthly; in 2013 I got 9 works up in 12 months, which is a 75% success, a grade of B! I doubt I'll be able to trump that frequency, the way things are looking; hopefully I can get new hyperfics up here somewhere between monthly and quarterly. (Every 6 weeks?) Then again, my most recent post was six months ago; I probably began work on this one two months ago, and it's not even a conversion! I might be better suited proposing to do four original hyperstories annually than twelve conversions, and could actually begin building up a portfolio of original work! Heavens forfend!

Now that my posts here have admittedly ground to a halt, the emerging gamebook community (I guess this generational cohort's nostalgia all caught up with them simultaneously) has found me and fingered me for some kind of locus hub. Thus this weekend (well, some weekends ago now) I was sought out by You Decide Games, offering CYOAs on such typical themes as zombie survival and such unorthodox ones as soccer manager. (Also, their electronic cover artwork is reminiscent of old iPod print advertising!) I'm the bearer of a freshly minted Android smartphone (well, not so smart, but at least kind of middlingly clever. Cannyphone?) and have been logging some time documenting the gamebook/hyperfiction side of the Google Play store, including some of these titles -- which largely appear to follow ZorkQuest-style "make one wrong decision and the story ends" forks. Preliminarily I can endorse Delight Games' series of Choice of Games knockoffs -- not perfect, but better than they need to be. Also hot off the presses, I was tipped off (and now so are you) to Anthony Lampe's "Explore-A-Quest" series, now up to volume five. I am wary of weighing in without access to full reviewer copies, but these appear to be classic-style stateless hyperfiction tales that just bifurcate merrily (a hyperfiction slogan if ever there was one: keep calm and bifurcate merrily) along on escapist themes -- the last of these even boasts its number of endings (an auspicious 13.) But what of valuing quality outcomes over quantity? Just kidding -- I'm as big a fan of piles of random crap as anyone else (maybe moreso, as you might guess if you ever get a chance to see my basement!)

It's a good season to be a hyperfiction fan. A compilation primer, Fear of Twine, offers presently-exclusive free access to sixteen diverse works created using Twine, including some by some of my favorite indie game developers including Jonas Kyratzes and Pippin Barr. Also hot off the presses is the debut collection from Inky Path, a curated selection of seven previously-released interactive fiction, primarily hyperfictive in nature, made with a real wide-ranging diversity of tools. Also worth noting is that finalist voting for this year's XYZZY awards has just opened, and if CYOA-interfaced games were scratching at the doors in previous years (with Choice of Games' Zombie Exodus actually bursting the ballot boxes in 2011) now they are actively strolling around the place, overheard discussing changing paint colours and rearranging the furniture. Many of the finalists this year are hyperfiction stories (vs. the traditional text-parser Infocom-style games for which the awards have been traditionally presented) including works I've earlier endorsed here, including You Will Select A Decision, Depression Quest, Trapped in Time, Solarium, Solarium, Bell Park -- Youth Detective, as well as new-to-me works such as Horse Master and ones I never managed to gush about here such as Choice of the Deathless. Seeing which ones others nominate for awards is a good place to start your browsing, with the filler already culled from the list!

(On a passing Infocom text-parser digression -- the 30th anniversary edition of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy text adventure has just been unveiled by the BBC, as gloriously player-hostile as ever. It's as worth checking out as ever it was!)

And since who knows if I'll wait another six months before making another post here (some, more canny, bloggers would have staggered all these news nuggets into 15 individual little posts rather than wadding them together into one tremendous sodden colossal heap, but that is simply not my way) -- my final note, a furtherly-digressing digression, an Indonesian CYOA conversion was brought to my attention. You hear that the gamebook concept makes a splash everywhere it is introduced, and in some countries and in some languages it takes its sweet time making its way over. The conversion is done using Quest's gamebook mode, and it appears to be a straight though unauthorized translation of the original book. Until they get someone fluent in Malay on retainer, ChooseCo may not even be aware of its existence! Chalk it up in the curiosity column.

And that's it for me for a while -- but hopefully not another six months! (If so, however, I've given you a lot to chew on here!) I actually have a minigame design in my head (even plotted out to cocktail napkin extent) for a contest ending eminently -- if anything comes of it and I actually get a chance to implement and submit it, rest assured you'll be the first to know.)