This post is brought to you by Chris Martens, who you can find on Twitter.
Like most interactive fiction enthusiasts, working on IF isn’t my day job, though perhaps I come closer than most. I’m a grad student at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) who’s managed to incorporate a sneaky amount of game design theory into my Computer Science-housed thesis project. Nonetheless, occasionally I find myself wanting to talk to other people about IF, particularly people who may not be as mired in academia, who just want to create in and appreciate the medium.
Thus I applied to teach a course as part of CMU’s so-called StuCo, or Student-taught Courses, program. The courses are relatively low-investment for both students and instructors: they’re about 1/3 or 1/4 the credits of a standard class; they usually meet once weekly, in the evenings; and they’re all pass/fail. Thus, I was lucky in that I had an incredible amount of leeway in the development of my curriculum, despite a somewhat daunting application and interview process.
What follows is my approach and experiences in designing and teaching this course.
Where I diverged from most curricula I looked at online is that:
(a) I had no interest in giving a full account of IF’s history. It’s much more interesting to me what’s happeningnow, how Twine and Inform creators (and others) are coming together and finding commonalities in what they love, and how there’s an ongoing, live conversation that my students could potentially participate in.
(b) I wanted to combine the three prongs of play, criticism, and authoring. We would experience the tools firsthand in a way that I hoped would help students feel more connected to the act of creation, but not center fluency in advanced usage of the tool over higher-level structural and narrative concerns. My hope was to get across that authoring tool and authored artifact, like form and content, aren’t separate aspects of a work that can be analyzed separately; we need to understand how they are related.
So we dove right in with:
The full schedule can be found here.
For the first half of the semester, the lectures were filled almost entirely with discussion and critique of games assigned for homework, as well as lessons on how to use Twine and Inform 7 to create games. They handed in two creative assignments, one Twine game and one Inform game.
For the second half of the semester, their duties were to lead one lecture discussion, and to propose and carry out a final project of their own design. So, every lecture on the schedule after “Play Day” was student-run.
The frustrating moments have often been when I felt that the purpose of a game I had assigned wasn’t reaching them. Some students often complained about a game’s structure feeling too linear, having “not enough puzzles”, or otherwise offering no sense of mastery or not enough agency. I could simply claim to them that a game need not have a component of mastery to create a compelling experience, but that wouldn’t make them believe it.
One thing that helped me was reading Naomi Clark and Anna Anthropy’s 2014 book, A Game Design Vocabulary. In the chapters on Conversation and Resistance, Clark writes about viewing a game as aconversation between the player and game, where the game can respond to player actions through “push and pull.” Having this vocabulary available to me enabled me to discuss a game like My Father’s Long Long Legs, whose links serve almost solely the purpose of allowing the player to say “yes, continue”–as a conversation wherein the player is mainly a listener, not a conversation participant with equal say. By emphasizing that this can be a deliberate choice on the part of an interactive story author, taking away agency from the player to create a more restrictive experience, I think some initially skeptical students were able to see the use of interactivity as meaningful.
On the more literal side of games as conversations, I also had high hopes for the Dialogue and Simulation lecture that ultimately didn’t work as planned. I hoped to give students some sense of how one might model a conversation as something with history and character interiority, but instead they seemed to come away with “anything trickier than hub-and-spoke dialogue is super difficult.” A few weeks later, I was fooling around with playing Galatea again and I found an old page of Emily Short’s with a few walkthroughs, one of which mentions the amazing visorx command, which gives a window onto some of the game’s internal variables while playing:
What a cool teaching aid! I only wish I’d known before trying to teach the game.
After the second “make a game” assignment was due, I saw my enrollment numbers dwindle down from the initial 20-something to the single digits. At first, this distressed me, but I have since been reassured that such falloff is pretty common for StuCo classes, since they’re elective classes that aren’t worth very many credits. Ultimately, the 8-person class I wound up with feels perfect: we all know each other by name and can have more personal discussions.
successes & highlights
One of the things I’m most pleased about is that the class, even with its dwindling size, maintained what I judge to be fairly healthy demographics: about half were art/humanities-focused people who may have never programmed before, but learned two new programming languages* (Twine and Inform) during the course, and all of the students came in having no, or close to no, prior experience playing IF. The few that reported having seen any IF before mentioned CYOA and Twine, but I don’t think anyone had played a parser game. By the end, they were able to identify idioms and mechanics, as well as clichÃ©s, in parser and Twine games and suggest when they might be applicable to different approaches to storytelling.
(*Yes, I’m going to call them programming languages. Keep in mind that “Programing Languages” is my Ph.D. specialization if you want to argue.)
Apart from the concrete learning objectives that I deliberately aimed for, we also had several moments that completely took me by surprise with how amazing they were.
The first was in the Collaborative Storytelling lecture. I had been looking forward to this class as a chance to play The Vermin Throne as a group, since the class presented a rare opportunity to assemble enough people with laptops. It actually worked less well than expected: the lack of transparency in the rules meant that people strategized mainly at random, and were often surprised to be suddenly knocked out in battle. If I were to run this game in the future, I’d point people at Damian’s rules writeup beforehand.
What did wind up working surprisingly well was getting everyone to play Naked Shades at the same time. Naked Shades is Andi McClure and Porpentine’s “Twine MMO,” which allows players to see evidence of other players who are in the same room as them concurrently, or occasionally to hear broadcast sounds or see corpses of players who died (yes, it’s a morbid game). The class took advantage of their shared physical and virtual location to announce the locations of corpses with the fragments of identity that other players might need to reach the ending, turning it into an unexpectedly collaborative experience. The shared experience of dying and respawning for the first time, as well as the identity-acquiring mechanics, also induced some grin-inducing moments (“How did you get a gender?!”).
We also made a big map on the board (the image featured at the beginning of this article).
During discussion of Depression Quest, the student leading lecture was brave enough to discuss her personal connection to the game, how she’d shared it with her mother as a way of communicating her own experiences with depression and anxiety. Some students felt less connection to the game, feeling it presented them with “obviously right” choices that they wouldn’t truly make if they were experiencing depression in real life. As much as I love discussion of mechanics and form, this opportunity for students to get their emotional responses involved with their critique of a game felt to me much more compelling than those in which students didn’t feel any relationship to the game’s content.
In a sort of move to end the class with something uplifting, we played ALL I WANT IS FOR ALL OF MY FRIENDS TO BECOME INSANELY POWERFUL, following discussion of Depression Quest andAnhedonia. The entire class seemed able to agree that “that was a good game!“, even those who had previously been loathe to call anything with such a linear path a “game.”
Another game we played collaboratively was The Gostak. In The Gostak, all verbs, adjectives, and nouns are words made up by the author, although sentence structure, punctuation, and connecting words mean that familiarity with English and with certain stock parser responses could help you out. As a class we made guesses about certain correspondence between Gostak words and English or Inform-game words, and maintained a dictionary on the chalkboard. But some words we could only classify by their part of speech — they had no obvious English correlate.
In particular, The Gostak tells a story set in a fantasy world with several animate creatures and structures where they perform certain actions. The player character is the Gostak, for instance, who is instructed to “distim the doshes.”
The leader of this lecture stopped play after 10 minutes or so, then instructed everyone to “get out a sheet of paper or a paint program on your computer, and illustrate something in the story.
And so we drew Gostak fan-art and shared it with each other.
For the final discussion class, the students in charge of lecture decided to draw a line on the board from “not IF” to “IF” and discuss several more experimental corner cases, such as Silent Conversation (interaction with the text of a story, but no influence on the actual narrative?), the Twine Farm Sim (interactions are clicking on text, but text is used to represent nonlinguistic things?), and Player 2 (definitely an interactive narrative, but nonfiction?), along with works such as Ruby Quest wherein the role normally taken by the parser in IF is played by a human mediator. While aligning all of these examples on a spectrum may seem simplistic, they took a light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek approach, winding up with the following Highly Scientific Chart:
the social potential of IF
I’ve recently noticed in some games discussions a resurgence of a preference for the term play instead of game, evoking a sense of purpose that’s more about pleasure and connection with other humans than about solitary “immersion,” separation, disengagement. Having lived most of my life drawn to games for the latter form of experience, I find myself deeply appreciative of the chance to explore the more playful, social half of the equation — to show how designed systems and rules can mix with the implicit and opaque systems and rules latent in human relationships.
I’ve lurked occasionally on forums; I’ve discussed IF fleetingly on Twitter and at conferences; I’ve read a lot of reviews, written a lot of research paper pages, and spent a lot of time thinking by myself about IF — but this was the first chance I had to experience sustained social connection through it. It’s made me want to make the time to find or build broader (not just university-based) communities around it, so that more people can have the opportunity to experience IF socially.
The StuCo program gave me a unique and valuable opportunity to experiment in this space. I hope that the documentation of this experiment can serve as a useful reference point to others interested in incorporating IF into educational or communal creativity environments.