Monthly Archives: February 2011

Watson Isn’t the Future of the Interactive Fiction Parser

Watson, the IBM program that beat two top Jeopardy! champions, is an eye-catching advance in natural language and reason-engine-style processing. It crushed its two human competitors at reading answers, teasing out the clues in those answers, and responding with the appropriate question.

It’s also not where text-based interactive fiction parsers should be going.

Interactive fiction, at least as I’m talking about it here, is a type of text-based game in which you type imperative sentences to move around in and interact with a game world. You type the sentences at a “>” prompt which in theory promises, “Type in anything and the game will understand you.”

That’s a lie, of course. What the prompt really means is, “Type a sentence that matches the pattern of commands the game understands and it might respond appropriately.” The natural language processing behind interactive fiction hasn’t changed much since Infocom set the standard back in the 1980s even though computers have become much more powerful. Could you make interactive fiction better by improving its natural language processing capabilities? Brian Moriarty, former Infocom implementor, sees NLP as a near-necessity for IF to be better. And in the wake of Watson’s victory, others have wondered why IF parsers don’t take advantage of computers’ increased processing power to do better parsing.

Would Watson, or something similar, make IF better? Watson’s requirements of 90 IBM Power 750 servers with some 2,880 processor cores and 15 terabytes of memory puts it out of the reach of the general IF audience, but you could certainly improve the natural language processing capabilities of interactive fiction without going to those lengths. Other games with text input, like Façade, respond to any typed input without requiring you to follow IF’s established imperative sentence structure. Why shouldn’t IF?

Many other genres of games, from first-person shooters to role-playing games, have a limited interface. Xbox and PS3 game controllers have eight buttons, two joysticks, and a D-pad. That limits the number of actions you can perform with one button press, and to get more you either have to make certain buttons context-sensitive, like the “use” button common to many games, or ask users to chain together a long string of button presses, like in old-style fighting games. Mainstream PC games use a mouse, arrow keys, and perhaps a set of function keys.

IF, on the other hand, has a much larger interface. Few works of IF let you type in “USE DOOR”. Instead it’s “OPEN DOOR” and “SEARCH DRESSER” and “PUT THE BOX ON THE TABLE”. That gives you a wide range of possible actions at the cost of a complex interface. To help guide players, authors adopted a standard set of commands. If your game requires new or less-usual commands, you have to spend time guiding players to learn and use those commands.

Now imagine a game accepts any input. You can type any English sentence you want and the game will attempt to parse your input. What should you type?

Game interfaces are about expressing agency in the game world. They’re how players communicate their intentions to the game and affect what’s going on inside the game. Modern videogames spend the first part of the game teaching players the available game mechanics and how to use the interface, helping them climb up the game’s learning curve. They guide players explicitly. If your game accepts any text input, then you have to work much harder to teach players what to type. To overcome option paralysis, you have to narrow those options.

Even if you had a perfect parser that could understand everything you typed, the game has to know what to do with it. Parsing is no good if you don’t do something with the results. Watson’s processing power let it parse text input and, based on that and its knowledge of how Jeopardy! answers are structured, make inferences about what related question fit the input. How much power would a game need to respond appropriately to sentences like “What have I been doing?” or “Measure out my life in coffee spoons”?

Take the case of an IF parser that accepted adverbs. Current IF parsers accept commands that are of the form VERB THE ADJECTIVE NOUN, occasionally with an added preposition and second noun: “PUT THE BOX ON THE TABLE”, “OPEN THE RED DOOR”, and similar. Now add in adverbs, so that you can “OPEN THE RED DOOR SLOWLY” or “PUT THE COFFEE CUP DOWN QUICKLY”. Now the game must decide the difference between putting something down quickly or slowly. What does it mean in game terms to TURN THE KNOB ANGRILY? You’ve added more nuance to a player’s interaction with the game world, and the IF author has to handle that nuance. It’s more work for the IF author; does it add enough to the game to be worth that work?

To rein in that increase in complexity, previous and current attempts have restricted this kind of accept-anything natural language processing to conversation with characters in the game instead of to affecting the game world as a whole. In those games, it quickly becomes apparent that the characters you’re conversing with don’t really understand what you’re saying. Worse, sometimes they mis-understand you in ways that mar your the game experience. Player agency is reduced, and you soon get the feeling that you can’t know what effect your actions will have on the world at all.

That’s why I don’t see Watson-style NLP taking IF by storm. The promise that you can type anything and the game will understand and respond appropriately has not yet been fulfilled, but even if it were, I don’t think it would make better IF.

Why the Dead Island Trailer is Exploitative

The trailer for the game Dead Island is striking both in content and presentation. The trailer’s focus on a young girl turned into a zombie has sparked debate, so of course I have to weigh in!

Be warned: the trailer is gory and disturbing.

The trailer is for a game but it functions like a film trailer, seeking to establish a mood and evoke emotion while giving an idea of what the game is about. It uses a filmic shorthand that people are familiar with. The trailer’s down-tempo piano music performs the same function as Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” has since it showed up in The Elephant Man: provide an elegiac soundtrack signaling that Very Sad Things Are Going On. The slow-motion effects re-enforce that mood of sadness and inevitability. The story centers on the death and zombification of a little girl in front of her parents to provide an emotional wallop, especially to those who are parents themselves. It’s no surprise that they chose to make the kid a girl instead of a boy, since our cultural narrative is that little girls must be protected while little boys can be adventurous.

The trailer’s structure adds to the sense of inevitability. It’s a short scene about a girl running from zombies before becoming one herself, attacking her dad, and being thrown out of a window to land dead on the ground below. The scene is shown simultaneously from the beginning moving forward and from the end moving backward, until the two narrative strands meet at the turning point of her being bitten. It’s like the Greek concept of tragedy without the hubris: you know what’s going to happen and you don’t want it to happen, yet you watch it happen anyway. And that last image before the titles, with the dad moving backward in time away from his just-bitten daughter, symbolizing the theme of the whole trailer — man.

What’s notable is that this trailer for a game never indicates that it’s for a game. It’s a short film that shows no gameplay and doesn’t even indicate that it’s for a game. I’m betting that that’s because we don’t yet have a common visual shorthand for games and gameplay. We do for films, though, and the developers chose to borrow that language to gain attention for their game.

Some have called the trailer exploitative, especially since the developers chose to center their scene on a little girl’s death. It is undoubtedly exploitative, but in much the same way that many film trailers are. It’s aiming to cause a gut reaction, and using everything it can to get that reaction quickly. Three minutes aren’t a lot of time to develop characters and get us to care in the people being shown without having them be archetypes. If that were all there were to it, I wouldn’t be concerned. Here’s the thing, though: is this trailer what the game is about? Everything I’ve read about the game indicates that it isn’t. The game’s a standard zombie survival one where you run around smacking zombies around with lead pipes and axes. Jason Schreier at spoke to the game’s publisher, who confirmed that it’s a film that “takes place in the world of Dead Island.”

That’s why I think it’s exploitative in a way that’s beyond normal game and movie exploitation. It’s using the images of a young girl dying not because it’s central to the game or necessarily indicates its theme, but because it’s attention-grabbing. When I look at this trailer, I see something technically proficient that has a hollow center.

What These Adventure Games Need is a Jonathan Blow

Jonathan Blow’s new game The Witness is going to modernize adventure games. The creator of the hit indie platformer Braid claims that his new game will avoid what killed off adventure games in the 1990s.

As you might imagine, his comments have raised hackles in the adventure game community. Some of that is a reaction to a perceived outsider riding in and saying, “I know what you lot have been doing wrong all of these years!” as if he were starring in Dances With Adventure Games. My negative reaction, though, comes from Jonathan’s apparent lack of information about what’s happened to adventure games since the 1990s.

He starts out promisingly enough, talking about how video game design has gotten better as time has passed.

If you go to conferences, designers are always talking about how they’re doing things and how to make games more fun. And that’s true, it’s pretty obvious. If you go back, get an emulator and play some games from the eighties on home computers, they’re kinda unplayable. You know, people say, “Games were just as good then as they are now.” It’s just not true. Things are way better design-wise.

Where he goes off the rails is when he then turns his eye to adventure games.

[Streamlining gameplay] happened to all the genres, but it never quite happened in adventure games. The core gameplay of a racing game, for example, has been refined. It’s way more interesting than Pole Position was in the arcade, you know. Much more sophisticated. A first person shooter is a lot about knowing what’s happening on the map. Especially if it’s multiplayer, like, who is where? And all this stuff. It’s been iterated and refined.

Adventure games are still what they used to be. And what the core gameplay actually is, is very different from what the designer intends. The designer wants it to be, “It’s going to be cool puzzle solving. There’s going to be a story and stuff.” But really what’s actually going through the players head in adventure games is, “I don’t know if I should be clicking on this thing” or “I don’t know if this is a puzzle” or “I don’t know if I need an item to solve this that I don’t have yet, or if I’m just not thinking.”

Adventure games are all confusion. If it’s text, it’s “Why doesn’t the parser understand me still?” So the core gameplay of adventure games is actually fumbling through something, right? And that’s true with modern [versions]. All the episodic stuff that’s coming out. And there’s a whole community that makes modern interactive fiction games and all this stuff. And it’s true for all these games.

Gameplay in adventure games can certainly be improved, but it’s not all confusion. Adventures aren’t what they were in the 1990s. Jonathan claims passing familiarity with the modern interactive fiction community, and yet has missed how it’s been addressing this confusion. Games like Blue Lacuna and Aotearoa use keyword highlighting to make it more obvious what you can interact with. Ones like Lost Pig and Violet respond to a tremendous number of commands to make it less likely that a player will type commands that the game doesn’t understand. We’ve got better help for learning the command pattern a parser expects, Emily Short and others deconstructing the parser and whether or not it’s necessary for interactive fiction, and Aaron Reed researching how to make the parser more user-friendly.

These are not obscure, hard-to-find developments. Blue Lacuna has shown up on everything from G4 TV to Gamasutra. Violet and Lost Pig were on JayIsGames and PlayThisThing and are often cited as games newcomers should play. Aotearoa won this year’s Interactive Fiction Competition. Emily Short is one of the two best-known names in all of interactive fiction.

Meanwhile, in graphic adventure games, you’ve got Telltale Games refining what can be done with episodic graphic adventures and Dave Gilbert at Wadjet Eye Games exploring what can be done with adventures intended for casual game players.

But what gets Jonathan excited? Riffing on Myst, especially the idea of a player with amnesia.

PC Gamer: That’s presumably why Myst is an inspiration?

Jonathan Blow: It’s a classic video game trope. I mean, you start the game. You don’t exactly know who you are –

PC Gamer: Or you’ve got amnesia.

Jonathan Blow: Yeah, or you have amnesia or whatever! And then through the course of the game you find out who you are. Like, BioShock did that. Tons of games do that. This game does it but in a very self-conscious, self-referential kind of way.

So the most over-used adventure game trope, the one so prevalent that it’s the name of a 1986 text adventure written by someone who wasn’t familiar with adventure games, is what gets Jonathan excited?

When I entered physics graduate school, I had big plans. I was going to learn a little physics, but not too much, because that way I could see clearly what others had missed about physics and then perform world-changing research. Later I realized how cutely naive I’d been. Outsiders to a field can make original contributions, but more often they end up going over old ground and repeating past mistakes.

Look: you don’t have to be full to the brim with adventure game knowledge to want to design one, or to take elements of their gameplay and use them in other games. But if you’re going to claim to be fixing what’s broken with the genre, it’s best to know what the genre’s been up to since you solved Myst.

To Eli On His Seventh Birthday

Yesterday you were born; today you are seven. For your birthday we got you tubes in your ears. Hope you like them! You’ve always been prone to winter ear infections, and this year you’ve been on antibiotics almost continuously since December. The surgery center where they installed your tubes has a hall with fourteen curtained alcoves. Patients are wheeled in and out of them with frightening speed. It was part NASCAR pit crew, part Henry Ford factory line. They wheeled you away and, before I could open the soda I bought in the recovery waiting room, they were calling us back to pick you up. “He’s going to be grumpy coming out of the general anesthesia,” they warned us, but as they brought you in, we could hear you happily asking the nurse about the wheelchair they had you in.

Eli looking a lot like Carl Sagan

It’s been a year of medical stuff, culminating in you getting stitches in your forehead. You ran out of Liza’s room, blood dripping down your face, and sobbed, “I hit my head!” It turned out you’d jumped off of her bed and over her Dora dollhouse only to bang your forehead on her dresser. After that emergency trip, you getting after-market ear tubes was a breeze.

It’s also been a year of snow. When we missed Huntsville’s white Christmas, instead having a rainy Arkansas Christmas, I thought you’d never get to see large amounts of snow. The universe set out to prove me wrong, dumping around a foot of snow on our yard in January and more in February. You didn’t have any snow boots, so we outfitted you with multiple pairs of socks covered by plastic Ziploc bags held on with rubber bands. Let no one say your mom and I have forgotten our redneck Arkansas roots. We made a snowman, but you were more interested in eating every bit of snow to see if it tasted different than every other bit of snow. You also had a good time throwing snowballs at me, though you were less excited when I threw snowballs back. We wandered up and down the snowy streets while I convinced you and Liza that the gray snow from car tires should not be eaten.

Eli with snowflakes on his tongue

You’re still in love with videogames. You’ve done so well with your Didj that this year we upgraded you to a Nintendo DS. Now you don’t have to solve math problems to keep playing a game! You’re a big fan of Plants vs Zombies and Kirby’s Epic Yarn. The big change is that this year you’re more interested in playing games yourself instead of watching me play. It’s not just videogames, though. You got a copy of the card game Uno as a birthday gift, and ever since you’ve been beating your mom and me at the game.

Last year we were lucky that your kindergarten teacher was great. This year we’ve been lucky that your first grade teacher is also great. Good teachers aren’t a given, so enjoy the ones you have. School has piled homework on your head. You spend about a half hour a day working on assignments to improve your writing, reading, and comprehension skills. They also have us tracking everything you’re reading, which makes reading into a chore with external rewards instead of something you do because you enjoy it. As you might guess, I’m not a fan of this approach. The schoolwork is only going to increase from here, and it makes me worried that you won’t have time to mess around and do things because you find them interesting, a key component in being a kid and becoming a functioning adult.

Eli reading a book

At seven years old, you’re a combination of loving and thoughtless in the way that young boys often are. You fight with Liza and then are sad because you’ve hurt her feelings. Our friends started a fund raiser to buy an iPad for their autistic son. When you heard about it, you said, “I want to give some of my money for it,” and counted out $3 in change to contribute to the fund.

Your relationship with Liza continues to deepen. She’s teaching you how to negotiate and get along with others, a skill which will come in handy later. You and she get up early in the morning and play together in her room, letting your mom and me sleep in like the awesome parents we are. For Halloween the two of you dressed up as skeletons, you in black and her in pink. You’re like binary stars who orbit around each other in complex ways.

Eli and Liza mugging for the camera

Your creativity continues to astound me. You still love making things out of Legos. You saw a TARDIS, went to your drawer of random Lego parts, and returned with a Lego TARDIS. You made a Lego version of Mario and a bad guy from Super Mario Galaxy and then told a long and complex story about how Mario beat the bad guy. You made a Lego version of Perry the Platypus from Phineas and Ferb, your all-time favorite TV show. I expect to come home from work one day to discover that you’ve made a Lego version of your sister and shooed the real Liza out the door.

Eli's KNEX robot

A lot of your creativity is centered on videogames. You’ve made up countless new plants and zombies for the eponymous Plants vs Zombies. “I have a new plant. It’s like a jah-lah-pah-no only it burns all the zombies at once.” You made a paper peashooter and zombie and acted out various PvZ levels. Once, before I left on a business trip, you made me a paper Super Meat Boy. “He can go with you,” you said.

You’ve even harnessed your creativity for capitalist ends. One day you came home from school with a big plastic helicopter. “Where’d you get that?” your mom asked. “Oh, I got one of my friends to trade it to me.” You’d traded him for a two-page comic you’d made of robots fighting. You mis-interpreted your mom’s bemused expression and hastened to re-assure her: “It’s okay. I can make another comic.”

Eli looking like an anime character

The time with you passes all too quickly these days. Yesterday you were born; today you are seven. I have trouble believing that it’s been seven years already, as I at once see you as the newborn baby you were and the boy you are now. That temporal double-vision is only going to get worse as we shelve more birthdays between the bookends of my memory of your birth and the reality of now. But when I page through those books and spread them out before me, what I see in my memories reminds me of how good we’ve had it and makes me excited for the future of who you will become.

Eli running on the beach

A Quick Business Presentation Tip

Let’s say that you’re making a PowerPoint presentation on improving businesses.

Let’s further say that you want to illustrate how the members of your business’s management team must work together. You decide to use a picture of gears to show how the team interlocks and turns as one.

You go to iStockPhoto and grab this picture:

Interlocking machine gears that won't turn

If you then show this presentation to a bunch of scientists and engineers, don’t be surprised if they point out that these gears won’t turn.

iStockPhoto has a lot of other gears that you can choose from. Please don’t pick the photo that looks like it belongs on There, I Fixed It.

White House Fashion

Yesterday, Marketplace ran a fascinating report talking to author Kate Betts about how the White House is influencing fashion.

Ryssdal: [Y]ou call it “approachable” at one point in this book. And I’m going to quote a friend of yours, you got an exchange from her at one point. Mr. Obama had been seen in a sort of informal jacket or something, and this friend of yours wrote to you and said, “You know what, I don’t want my Presidents to be approachable.”

Betts: Well, that’s interesting because the President has such an historic place, obviously, in this country….

Ryssdal: Do you see that being reflected in fashion trends and in style trends?

Betts: Oh absolutely. His use of color, the way he wears such beautiful colors so easily. Designers for spring have completely embraced that idea and you see color all over the runways….

Ryssdal: There are those that will listen to this interview and hear that it’s about style and fashion and clothes and kind of dismiss it as not substantive.

Betts: For some reason in this country there is this notion that style and substance should occupy two separate planets, really. And I think that actually Barack Obama is proof — living proof — that you can be stylish and substantive and you don’t have to make excuses for one or the other.

Oh, silly me, I got that wrong — the entire interview was about Michelle Obama. I should have realized, given how much discussion of First Ladies revolves around their sartorial choices. Next time I’ll remember that articles about Presidents are about what they’re doing and articles about First Ladies are about what they’re wearing.

Octopus Cake

Several folks have asked me today about Eli’s birthday cake from the photo in the previous post.

I made the cake Thursday afternoon from our favorite chocolate cake recipe.

Then my mom and I decorated it Friday morning. It is a retired Williams-Sonoma cake pan that I bought on a whim when they were closing it out for $7 at our local Williams-Sonoma store.

Eli has loved it from the moment I bought it and we often have octopus shaped cake at our house, although this is the first time I’ve taken the time to decorate it. Armed with photos from the internet, my mom and I iced it and stuck candy to his arms to be the tentacle suction cups. The octopus is purple because that is Eli’s favorite color. I found the fish candies at a party store and that was the icing on the cake, so to speak. Eli brought me his toy Wii-mote to add to the cake just before the kids arrived because as he said in his best “Duh, Mom” voice, “It’s a Wii party.”

It’s pretty homemade looking but the boys gobbled it up and my mom and I had a lot of fun decorating it. I have fond memories of my mom decorating my cakes from childhood and I’m glad that I finally did the same for Eli. Liza has already declared that she needs a fish cake for her birthday in May.

Help Me Pick Topics for Dragon*Con 2011

I’m starting to mull topics to talk about at Dragon*Con this year, so now’s your chance to help me decide!

How do we know where we are? Do you remember the route you took to get to your desk earlier? If so, how? In the last five years scientists have found all kinds of crazy neurons in brains. There are border cells that respond specifically to borders and edges, grid cells that divide the space around us into equilateral triangles, place cells that form a sense of place like dropping a pin in a Google map, and head position cells that keep track of where you’re pointing your head. The current theory is that our brains take all of these bits of information to build up a sense of space around us.

Let’s destroy the Earth! If we wanted to destroy the Earth, how would we go about it? And when I say “destroy the Earth”, I mean turn it into dispersed chunks of floating matter, not merely scraping the humans off of the crust like mold off of cheese.

Hunting down exoplanets. Before 1992, we’d never detected a planet outside of our solar system. We’re up to 519 now, but to date we’ve only found one likely rocky planet in a star’s habitable zone: Gliese 581 g. How are we finding these things in the first place?

Other suggestions?