After working with the IFTF, I’m pleased that the Undum website and documentation is now available again, at GitHub.

It has powered a number of games, occasionally pops up among IFComp entries, but has never been as widely used as other tools. If you are unfamiliar, allow me to introduce it. Undum is a choose-your-own-adventure interactive fiction tool, with a couple of very specific design goals. One aesthetic and one technical.

I have a passion for the texture of books. I wanted to create a tool where the works exude physicality and play has the feeling of reading prose. The visual design is unashamedly skeuomorphic: from before the time we learned to distrust such things. It begins with letterpress titles and marbled paper, and opens to cream textured background and off black ink. My hobby is bookbinding, this was a virtual version. When I created it in 2009, CYOA games were structured like the original books: read a paragraph, make a choice, the screen clears and new text appears. In Undum, the choices fade, disappear, and the surrounding text rearranges to form a resulting narrative. It looks somewhat old now to my eyes, but the basic idea I think is sound. Many other recent titles – inkle’s games for example – use a similar effect, at least for small sections of text.

Technically, both Undum and the games that target it, are written in JavaScript. I hoped this would make it accessible for a wider range of dabblers, requiring transferable skills rather than learning a new language. It also made it achievable to write and document over a few weekends: I didn’t have to worry about parsing, or creating a complete runtime. But the best benefit, and in some ways the one least exploited in practice, is the ability to use Undum as part of a bigger game. I imagined a strategy game with CYOA elements, or a piece of interactive fiction using natural language generation to be different each time.

Between the first and second release, I fell in love with Alexis Kennedy’s quality-based narrative structure, as used in Fallen London (at the time named Echo Bazaar). Rather than specifying explicit options, a random selection can be drawn from a database, based on criteria that represent the choices made so far: this choice is allowed if ‘fear’ is greater than three, for example, that one if the ‘met the monster’ flag is set. This approach allows a choice to easily affect things much later in the story. And crucially, it allows new sections to be written and added, without manually rewiring the flow. In Undum, explicit and implicit choices are both supported, and interchangeable from moment to moment.

I left working on Undum to develop Varytale, a short lived commercial IF endeavour that shared a lot of the same aesthetic and narrative structure. And then I retired, and it lay fallow, aside from email help requests that still drip into my inbox. If you are curious, I think it is particularly suitable for writerly programmers, especially those who want to push the boundaries: hook up web sockets for multiplayer IF, send new content from a web server, break out of the narrative to play a mini game, or add rich media and video. I hope, with the encouragement of IFTF, it continues its afterlife powering interesting and form-challenging games.

Six months ago, we waved around the idea of hosting an interactive fiction conference in Boston. Then — six months of silence.

Surprise! We still exist!

…Apologies for the delay. Nailing down a venue turned out to be a more protracted and painful process than we expected. It’s still not entirely nailed down, I’m sorry to say. But it’s solid enough for us to announce:

NarraScope 2019
Celebrating Narrative Games
June 14-16, 2019 — Boston, MA

The focus of the conference is not just “interactive fiction”. IF is a broad-ranging term these days, but not everyone uses it or thinks of themselves as “interactive fiction authors”. NarraScope will aim to cover the spectrum of narrative-focused games and interactive design: adventure games, Twine, hypertext, choice-based and parser-based IF, visual novels, procedurally generated narrative… Each of these forms has evolved into a community of practice. We want to create a space for these communities to come together, talk, exchange ideas, and discover ways to collaborate.

We are still finalizing the details of the venue and schedule. We expect to be in Cambridge, in coordination with MIT’s Comparative Media Studies and Writing department.

A call for speakers and talk proposals will be posted soon! Watch for news on our mailing list (join!) and on our web site.

Who are we? The Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization which supports the tools, services, and community resources of interactive fiction and narrative games. NarraScope is IFTF’s first major public event. Here’s our conference committee.

Inclusivity statement: NarraScope celebrates the diverse voices of game design. We aim to create a safe, welcoming, and accountable space for all participants.

As of this week, the Inform 6 web site at inform-fiction.org is now maintained by IFTF.

“Wait,” you say, “there was an Inform 6 web site? You mean before the Inform 7 web site?” Indeed there was! Graham Nelson launched inform-fiction.org in 2002, and continued maintaining it until around 2008. After that, I7 was more widely used, and the I6 site settled into a quiet retirement.

This doesn’t mean that the I6 language fell out of use, of course. It’s still a vital component of the I7 toolchain, and some people continue to write games in I6 directly. However, development of the I6 compiler and library have moved to familiar open-source platforms (GitHub and GitLab).

Furthermore, the old web site remains the canonical home for some of the core documents of Inform’s history:

All of these documents are also preserved on the IF Archive, but we thought it was important to give the web site (and its canonical URLs) a permanent home. Therefore, with Graham’s kind permission, we have moved inform-fiction.org and all of its contents to IFTF. In fact, it’s now an official IF Archive annex, an alias of inform-fiction.ifarchive.org.

We don’t plan to update the site going forward. It remains a snapshot of IF history — or a series of snapshots. If you poke around, you’ll find Z-Machine interpreter lists from 2004, Inform extensions from 2007, and bug report lists from 2013. We don’t apologize! That’s history for you.

So what else can we preserve?

Web sites sometimes fall off the net. We’re not going to go around aggressively soliciting domains to take over — that would be tacky. But if a well-known IF site looks neglected, or if the owner wants to hand it off… drop us a line. We have a good track record for preserving IF-related data.

We also intend to create an Archive annex specifically for IF standards and specifications (like the Z-Machine). Again, these all exist in the Archive directory, but you have to dig for them. It would be nicer to have a core site where everything is findable.

This is a question that hits close to the bone for me. The specs for Glk and Glulx, my successors to the Z-machine, live on my personal web site at eblong.com. Does it make sense for me to shift them to an Archive annex? Transfer the ownership of the documents to IFTF? I suspect it does.

This doesn’t imply a radical change. I am, I guess, a BDFL for these specifications, and I don’t expect that to change any time soon. But, as we know, eventually a BDFL might want to retire. So having a succession path through IFTF makes sense.

On to the next decade.

Last year we created the Colossal Fund to raise money for IFComp prizes. It worked great! IF enthusiasts donated over $7000; we distributed $5600 to the authors of 52 IFComp entries. The only stumbling block was that IFComp 2017 was bigger than expected — 79 entries, the largest slate in IFComp’s history. And that’s the kind of problem that we’re really happy to have.

Now it’s time to open the Colossal Fund for IFComp 2018. The donation button is live! See your name listed on our donor page. (Or listed as “anonymous”, if you prefer.)

We’re raising the stakes this year: our fundraising goal is $9000. The fundraising deadline is November 15th (the end of IFComp voting).

Just like last year, we are earmarking 80% of donations ($7200) to be distributed among the top two-thirds of IFComp finishers. The other 20% ($1800) goes to support IFTF and its operations, including IFComp.

What does this mean for authors? Because we’re dividing the money among the top finishers, the exact numbers depend on how many IFComp entries there are. Let’s assume that IFComp continues to grow, and reaches 90 entries this year. Then we will divide the money among the top 60 entries. If we reach our target of $9000, then the prize chart look like this:

1: $334.5216: $191.5231: $89.7746: $29.27
2: $323.7117: $183.4632: $84.4647: $26.71
3: $313.0718: $175.5733: $79.3248: $24.32
4: $302.6219: $167.8734: $74.3749: $22.12
5: $292.3620: $160.3635: $69.6150: $20.11
6: $282.2721: $153.0236: $65.0251: $18.27
7: $272.3722: $145.8737: $60.6252: $16.62
8: $262.6623: $138.9138: $56.4153: $15.16
9: $253.1224: $132.1239: $52.3754: $13.87
10: $243.7725: $125.5240: $48.5255: $12.77
11: $234.6126: $119.1141: $44.8656: $11.86
12: $225.6227: $112.8742: $41.3757: $11.12
13: $216.8228: $106.8243: $38.0758: $10.57
14: $208.2129: $100.9644: $34.9659: $10.21
15: $199.7730: $95.2745: $32.0260: $10.02

The numbers add up to $7200, which is 80% of $9000.

As you see, this is not a winner-take-all plan. Our goal is to distribute prizes across a broad range of IF styles and ideas. Any game which does even moderately well should receive a decent prize.

Other details:

  • How do I donate? Go to IFComp.org and push the big yellow Paypal button.
  • Is my donation tax-deductible? Yes, to the extent allowed by law. (Consult a tax professional, that’s all we can say.)
  • Does the Colossal Fund replace the usual IFComp prize list? No! These cash prizes will be in addition to the usual IFComp prize list. Please visit this page to donate objects and services as prizes.
  • How will the cash prizes be distributed? Via PayPal. If you can’t accept PayPal, we can mail a US check to a US address. If that doesn’t work for you, or if you wish to decline the cash prize, we will roll the money into next year’s prize fund.
  • Was any money rolled into this year’s fund from last year? Yes! Some of last year’s winners declined their prizes, and we also had some donations that came in after last year’s deadline. So we are starting the 2018 CF fund with $1100 already in the pot.

If you have further questions, please contact us at ifcomp@ifcomp.org. And thanks for your support!

We proudly announce two additions this month to IFTF’s roster of advisors and directors.

First, we welcome Liza Daly onto IFTF’s board of directors. Liza is a software engineer, startup founder, and technology executive who specializes in digital publishing and web-based storytelling. She founded ifMUD, an early, influential chatroom for the IF community, and has authored several parser and hypertext games. This work most recently includes the XYZZY Award-winning Harmonia, a delightfully marginalia-driven story that finished among IFComp 2017’s top five entries.

We also welcome Graham Nelson to our advisory committee. Graham is a fellow in pure mathematics at St. Anne’s College of the University of Oxford, but the IF community recognizes him chiefly as the inventor and ongoing lead developer of Inform (as well as the author of Curses, the sprawling text adventure that debuted Inform to the world). Inform helped catalyze interactive fiction out of its post-commercial dormancy in the 1990s, and continues to serve as a centrally important tool for countless authors creating new work. (Graham’s labors on Inform continue as well, as evidenced by a talk he recently presented in Oxford.)

Besides these lists of impressive credentials, both Liza and Graham have been active members and friends of the IF community for a long time, and IFTF is that much stronger for their names and voices added officially to its future direction.

Several months ago, after our recognition of the IF Archive’s 25th anniversary, a community moderator from Opensource.com contacted IFTF to ask if we’d like to write an article about the Archive. As the name of the website suggests, Opensource.com has interest primarily in articles about free and open-source software; while the Archive does host its share of FOSS, we ended up agreeing to write a more general study of the intersection between interactive fiction and open source.

That article, authored by yours truly, is now online, under the headline A brief history of text-based games and open source. I think it turned out pretty well, and I invite your comments on it. Enjoy!

If you keep up with IFTF Newsletter you have already heard the news, but we’re excited to formally announce that IFTF has formed an Education Committee! Our mission is to increase awareness of IF within the gaming world and outside of it.

We’ll do that by promoting the use of IF in teaching, and the teaching of IF programming and design. We understand IF in the educational context most broadly as game, literature, art, non-fiction simulation, or interactive narrative interface, and in its parser-based, hyptertext, and hybrid formats. We are also committed to a wider social goal — advancing digital literacy and inclusivity by fostering the writing/programming of IF across multiple disciplinary fields and within racially, culturally, economically, and gender-diverse populations. We’ll support educators teaching all across the academic spectrum, those who teach kids, undergraduates, graduate students, adults, educators, and the general public.

I’m excited to have the opportunity to chair this committee. I’ve been on the IFTF Board of Directors for a little less than a year now, but I’ve been teaching IF for decades. I am currently the Director of the Electronic Literatures and Literacies Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The new IFTF Education Committee has been populated by an equally experienced group of game designers and educators. Fellow board member Chris Klimas, creator of Twine and I will be joined on the committee by Brendan Desilets, who utilized IF for many years in Middle School classrooms and now teaches in the English Department at UMass@Lowell, Jeremiah McCall, author of Gaming the Past, who employs IF to teach High School history at Cincinnati Country Day School, Anastasia Salter, who teaches Digital Media at the University of Central Florida, Matthew Farber, who teaches in the Technology, Innovation, and Pedagogy program at University of Northern Colorado, and Stuart Moulthrop now in the Media, Cinema and Digital Studies Department at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The committee’s activities will include identifying, curating and sharing existing pedagogical materials on an IFTF Educational Resources Website, as well as developing new materials, curricula, and media for use in classrooms or as part of online IF courses. We’ll seek grants to help us make these materials available to educators working at all with all levels, but particularly in underserved public school settings. We’ll promote our educational initiatives through social media, and wherever we may travel. Look for us soon on Facebook and Twitter, and we’ll be out in force at IFTF’s first annual conference slated for June 2019.

Taking a page from the success of IFComp’s Colossal Fund, IFTF offers a new way for IF community members to show their support for the Foundation’s ongoing programs. If you use the PayPal link on our giving page to set up an automatic monthly donation of $5 (USD) or more — an action as easy as checking a checkbox, and as spiritually uplifting as a warm spring breeze — we will salute your generosity with a place of honor among our new list of monthly supporters.

Naturally, IFTF continues to gratefully and humbly accept tax-deductible donations of any size or frequency. We also reserve the right to think of other fun rewards for those who display ongoing or otherwise significant generosity! But for now, giving a public nod to those who think of IFTF every month (or at least instruct a database running somewhere at PayPal headquarters to think of IFTF every month on their behalf) seems like the least we could do. So, we’re doing that.

If having your name printed on a static webpage somehow isn’t enough when it comes to showing off your IFTF support, then may I remind you of our gift shop! It sells an array of IFTF merch, including IF Archive stickers, IF Archive coffee mugs, and IF Archive T-shirts. (Someday we’ll put some more designs up there, but darn it we love the IF Archive.) All profits from these purchases go into IFTF’s general fund.

Since assuming management of IFTF’s accessibility testing project a few months ago, I’ve decided to update this blog every now and again with a public progress summary. Consider this the first!

This spring, the accessibility committee plans to form a number of working groups who will each create a small, purpose-built accessibility-test game. Currently, we’re planning to build games in Inform, Twine, and ChoiceScript.

Each game will serve as a sort of obstacle course of accessibility challenges, both those common to computer interactions, and those specific to IF. Notably, the entity running this course will not be the game’s player, but the game’s own development and play software. The player — one of the volunteer testers we plan to recruit, in the near future — will simply ride along and take note of how well it performs. We’ll base these challenges on WCAG 2.0 Level A, a set of recommendations that — if properly implemented — provide a broad basis of good accessibility practices.

The high-level questions each game seeks to answer:

  • Do this platform’s development tools allow an author to make appropriate affordances for players with disabilities?

    (As a simple example: Can you specify alt text that accompanies an image which appears during the game?)

  • Do the separate programs that run games created with this platform succeed in representing any such affordances?

    (If an image with a game has alt text defined, for example, will the play-platform know when and how to display that text appropriately?)

The real questions will be much more specific, of course, and many will make their way into surveys that the working groups will create alongside the test games. Earlier this year, committee member Deborah Kaplan drafted a simple example survey for a notional test game, to show the spirit we have in mind.

This work also takes a page from Roger Firth’s Cloak of Darkness. This classic specification for a tiny parser-based IF includes a number of activities that a traditional model-world game system is expected to support: moving around among rooms, playing with light sources, hanging clothes on hooks, and so on. By boasting a Cloak of Darkness implementation, a given parser-IF development system can both prove its basic functionality and provide a small, rich source-code example.

Unsurprisingly, accessibility committee members with longer personal IF histories all thought of Cloak at around the same time, once we started thinking about asking testers to play a pre-arranged game of some kind. Since we will aim to test not model-world flexibility but rather affordances for players with disabilities, we opted to create new works rather than explicitly adapt this one. But, threads of that trusty old Cloak will wind through our output, just the same.

If you said hello to me at GDC last week, I might have slipped you a surprise:

Get on board the early hype trait for the new NARRATIVE INTERACTIVE FICTION ADVENTURE GAMES CONVENTION -- coming to Boston, USA, mid-2019

(Yes, there are typos. We apologize. The flyer was thrown together at the very last minute.)

But I didn’t say hello to everybody at GDC, or even all the IF-related people. (Con crud laid me low on Thursday; I missed some important parties.) And I never intended this to be a secret, anyhow. So here’s our more public announcement:

IFTF intends to run some kind of convention (or conference) for lovers of interactive fiction, narrative games, adventure games — all the forms of story-forward interactivity. Join our mailing list for more info!

If I handed you one of these flyers, I immediately added “Planning is in a very early stage.” We don’t even have a name for the thing yet! (“Narrative interactive fiction adventure games convention” is unwieldy and has a terrible acronym.) In fact, I’m still wavering between calling it a “convention” or a “conference”. Or a “conferention” maybe.

However, I can tantalize you with some early statements:

  • We will do this. In Boston. Sometime in the summer of 2019. We’re aiming at June but that could slide around.
  • It will be fun!
  • We are a small group of collaborators, mostly from the Boston indie-dev scene. We have not yet formed up as a committee or decided who is carrying what role yet, so I will leave the names for a future announcement.
  • We intend to welcome all sorts of interactive narrative: Twine, parser games, point-and-clicks, visual novels, graphical adventures, experimental hypertext. There are a lot of disconnected “IF communities” these days — many of them don’t even think of themselves in those terms, but they’re still exploring the world of narrative games. We’d like to be a place where they can all get together and talk.
  • This will be an event for both creators and players (and people who are both!) That’s why it’s both “convention” and “conference”.
  • We’ll probably lean towards the indie side of the spectrum, since giant companies already have their own conferences.
  • Our intention is to be affordable and welcome a diverse range of voices. We will have program content from game designers you admire and also designers you’ve never heard of.
  • We want to make this an annual event.

Having said that, I acknowledge that not everything about our plan is going to be ideal the first time out.

  • The first (2019) conference will be limited in size. This is IFTF’s first real-life event. We want to approach it conservatively and scale up over time.
  • “Boston” and “affordable” are not words that go together smoothly. We apologize for that. Our core group is mostly Boston-based, and we know this area best — there’s no practical way we could run the event in a different city. Maybe we’ll pick a different city for 2020.
  • For that matter, my country’s policies are currently unfriendly to visitors from abroad, and actively hostile to visitors from Muslim-majority countries. Some conferences are reorganizing outside the US until matters improve. I support that idea, but again, it’s not practical for us the first time out.

We intend to keep these issues in mind and look for ways to mitigate them as our experience and resources grow.

It’s all a year off, so we don’t have any more info for you yet. But if you’re interesting, please join this mailing list to receive news and announcements. The list will be low-traffic — no more than a couple of posts a month, usually less.

(We’ll also post important announcements on this blog, and also our twitter account and so on. But the mailing list is how to stay in the loop specifically about the convention.)

If you’re interesting in helping with the event, please drop us a note! We don’t have tasks for volunteers yet — as I said, we haven’t even figured out our own roles yet. But we will stay in touch as the conference plan progresses.

Thank you for your interest in interactive fiction! And adventure games, interactive narrative, and all the other terms that get used.