Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The TriadCity Style Guide

Gamers don't want to read miles of prose. They're busy exploring, interacting with stuffs, chatting, not getting killed. Yet TriadCity has the ambition to be richly detailed. How to balance?

Most of our authors do it by writing in layers.

Start with a basic room description, keep it to one short paragraph. The game engine will add lists of items or other characters which the player's character is able to perceive. Your paragraph should be detailed enough to give players a concrete sense of space, yet terse enough that it can be scanned quickly. Note that since many players are blind, terseness works in favor of screen readers as well. If descriptions are too long, the reader may miss chat messages or other details which would interest the player.

Room descriptions have tertiary characteristics we colloquially call "nouns". If the description is, "An ordinary bedroom with a chest of drawers in one corner", the player will be able to query the game engine for more detail on the nouns "bedroom", "chest", "drawers", and "corner". If you choose not to provide that detail, the game's response will be the highly unhelpful "If only there were a corner here to see". But you can add whatever detail you like, for example, "The corner is dark, cobwebby, dappled in flickering shadow from a lamp burning atop the chest of drawers.". Then you can go on to provide detail about the lamp, and so on, to whatever depth you feel is appropriate. It's then up to the player to decide whether to investigate that detail, or not, at her discretion.

You can go further by providing items for players to interact with. You may choose to put a chest of drawers of one or another type into the room. Then, along with looking, players can touch, smell, open, close, and generally fiddle, including finding things hidden inside — or putting things inside themselves. All up to you as the author. What are you seeking to achieve with this room?

TriadCity fully enables all sense descriptions; it's your choice to provide them or not. Players can touch the chest of drawers, listen to it, taste it, smell it. Your sense descriptions can be serious, or flip: "taste the chest" may result in "Aren't you afraid you'll get splinters in your tongue?" Or it could be "The chest tastes like dried blood." You concretize your intent for the room by providing layers of these details for players to interact with.

It's especially important to keep screen reader constraints in mind. You want the chunks of text read by screen readers to be short enough to not block each other. It's probably good to login from time to time with an accessible MUD client, to listen to the reader do its thing inside your rooms. It could give you a better sense of how real users will experience them.

This scratches the surface, but that's the thing. You can stop with just a surface, or you can supply layer after layer of detail, depending on your intent and available time. A good part of an author's artistry is deciding when there's just enough versus too much for players to absorb.


Saturday, September 28, 2019


Elves. More unsubtle allegory.

TriadCity's Elves are a defeated and displaced people. They're Native Americans, they're Syrian and Honduran refugees flooding Barmalindar and less seemly encampments in the other Thirds. Their remnants are riddled with alcoholism, they live on the dole, and those who don't live by selling a packaged and clean-scrubbed version of their cultural history.

Younger Elves are radicalizing. In the University milieu they join underground circles on the far-left. They're among the most accomplished Liberators. There are rumors of Elf-Orc alliances and secret cells operating in Rubble City and inside the barbed wire in Maboj Bot Ob.

The allegory is unsubtle but there is a more nuanced component. We're commenting as pointedly as possible on the racialism of the MUD tradition which descends from Tolkien and D&D. Why are the bad guys always black, why are the good guys always white and outnumbered? Helm's Deep, Zulu, The Green Berets, the climactic battle at Winterfell with the Night King: beleaguered bands of white brothers who slaughter the subhumans. Exactly the point and purpose of the mainstream MUD tradition before TriadCity. We turn it around, turn it inside out, stick it up its own ass. Bonus question: what race lives in NorthWest? There are a lot of pareus and breadfruit trees over there.

The Elves help us make fun of the smarmy near-left. Elvish epigones who appropriate and bowdlerize their culture, and argue among themselves over "Who are the true Elf-friends?" Dressing in worn blankets 'cos that's what the real Elves do.

Elves in TriadCity are not Tolkien's superspiritual superbrains with the brawn of Orlando Bloom. They're passed out drunk on Sanctuary Island, or huddled in detention centers in Maboj Bot Ob. Or fleeing with heads down from the Elvish Ghetto off MacArthur Boulevard in NorthEast. They're held in contempt by everyone in NorthEast and nearly everyone in the South, while even the generous NorthWesterners resent them for their drain on public resources.

Robert Natkin, abstract


TriadCity vampires faint at the sight of blood.

While they portray themselves in their Disney-like theme park as predators at the apex of the apex, for the most part they hire humans to prey on other humans. They're extremely vain, extraordinarily charismatic, for the most part fabulously wealthy, horrendously elitist, and not in the least bit interested in anyone's well-being apart from their own.

Vampirism in TriadCity is a thinly wink-winked allegory of Neoliberalism, where the Vampire Pater is Fred Hayek and the vamps erect statues to his epigones Milton Friedman, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Ayn Rand, the Mont Pelerin Society, the Chicago Boys, Sam Brownback, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and the American Bipartisan Neoliberal Consensus. It's not subtle, unless you suck at Google.

The Vampire Theme Park is one of the oldest concepts in the TriadCity universe. I wrote special procedures for it in C in 1997 using the CircleMUD code base. Finishing it now is appropriate, as Neoliberalism unravels before our eyes everywhere in the world. The Theme Park feels like a fitting tombstone. Or a fitted tombstone. Some kind of heavy fit. Or heavy-handed fit.

Hints and cluelets in the Theme Park are meant to suggest subtle questions. Are the Vampires truly native to NorthEast? Or are they just now trying to muscle-in from their secure control of the South? The South is a Neoliberal utopia: everything's for sale, the police are omnipresent, the streets are clean and free of homeless, and you never see poor people except when they stagger down from their hillside favelas to sell their kidneys. NorthEast satirizes an earlier capitalism, the 19th century Dickensian universe of corruption and cronyism which Neoliberalism idealizes. Mashed-up in our TriadCity way onto both ancient Rome and Nazi Germany. There Blackshirts rule, Elves are driven out or into camps, Orcs organize underground, slaves do the work and provide the entertainment. I think the Vampires are invaders from the future, but I could be wrong.

Robert Natkin, abstract

Sunday, June 4, 2017

James A. Cook, farmboy from Yorkshire; James T. Kirk, farmboy from Iowa

James A. Cook, farmboy from Yorkshire; James T. Kirk, farmboy from Iowa. The Endeavour; The Enterprise. Three-year mission; five-year mission. "Farther than any other man has been before me"; "where no man has gone before". Boldly going, into a narrative space which was at least already partly mapped.

My interest here is in this contemporary retelling of old, half-remembered, half-familiar stories. Myth and Modernism, Ulysses and the Odyssey, or more sinisterly the calculated political manipulation of myth and symbol by the Nazis. Jung says these images are hardwired into the collective unconscious. I find that mystical, and mystified. More likely the tales encountered in grammar school remain latent for later reactivation.

Striking case in point: Spielberg's E.T. Retelling of Peter Pan, where Elliott is Peter, the neighborhood kids are the Lost Boys, and E.T. is Tinkerbell. What's the first dialog spoken to Elliott? "Grow up!" When E.T. is "dead" what does Elliott say? "I'll believe in you." E.T. sprinkles fairy dust and the Lost Boys on Bikes fly. This is explicit on the part of the filmmakers. They say so out loud: there are two separate scenes of Mom reading Peter Pan to little Gertie, including "Clap your hands if you believe in fairies!" They've sprinkled these direct references to the narrative they're re-narrating, expecting them to operate, I think, unconsciously or semi-consciously on childhood memories largely submerged. I believe this is in large part what made such a pedestrian flick so memorable. It fascinates me that literally not one person I've mentioned this to over thirty plus years had been consciously aware of the parallel before we spoke of it. It seems that even when the fact of retelling is shoved up the audience's nose, the retelling continues to operate at an unconscious level. "That's very interesting" — Captain Jack Sparrow.

Were Roddenberry and crew intentionally operating with legends of Cook? Certainly the name and the famous tagline were modeled on his. I don't know whether any of Kirk's experiences evoke Cook's. Not sure it matters.

Thomas Mann, of course, in his syrupy middle-class burgherish way. T.S. Eliot in his brilliant leaping syntheses. George Lucas drawing on Joseph Campbell, although I think Luke Skywalker's mythic arc has been vastly overstated. How deep will the catalog go?

To my knowledge, none of TriadCity's authors has knowingly paralleled previous narratives. I frequently draw on borrowed characters, but that practice is a different narrative ontology than Modernism's or Spielberg's. It's a simple juxtaposition, where a borrowed character with a well-understood context is placed in an ostensibly foreign one, inviting potentially infinitely receding comparison of worlds. The respective narrative structures are not paralleled apart from this anachronistic character. It's a different beastie.

We could do the kind of recycled storytelling Spielberg practiced in E.T. I'm not sure it's appropriate. For TriadCity authors the very concept of "storytelling" is reactionary. It's a throwback to works whose modes of distribution imposed time's arrow on their consumers, where the elements of the work will always be encountered in the same order with each new reading or each new viewing, and mythic resonance is one technique for implying dimensions that are in fact absent. Virtual worlds are unconstrained by time's arrow: their narrative ontologies are multidimensional by default. Do we need to go backward?

Robert Natkin, abstract

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Literary Modernism in TriadCity

Literary theorist Brian McHale defines Modernism this way:

"I will formulate it as a general thesis about modernist fiction: the dominant of modernist fiction is epistemological. That is, modernist fiction deploys strategies which engage and foreground questions such as ... 'How can I interpret this world of which I am a part? And what am I in it?' Other typical modernist questions might be added: What is there to be known?; Who knows it?; How do they know it, and with what degree of certainty?; How is knowledge transmitted from one knower to another, and with what degree of reliability?; How does the object of knowledge change as it passes from knower to knower?; What are the limits of knowledge? And so on." Postmodernist Fiction, Methuen 1987, p. 9.

Subjectivity is central. Unreliable narrators; interior monologue; juxtaposition of multiple simultaneous points of view; ambiguity; allusion; associative leaps; puns and multiple associations of words; discontinuity; fragmentation; emphasis on dream and unconsciousness; elimination or subversion of privileged narratorial points of view, often with multiple narrators: these are all strategies which devalue certainty. McHale emphases that literary “high” Modernism was shadowed by a more popular form which mobilized similar techniques: detective and mystery fiction, where Sherlock Holmes is as much the Modernist paradigm as Leopold Bloom. Something which I think McHale misses: Modernism’s assimilation of themes from contemporary science, Relativity foremost, but also Psychoanalysis, both devaluing privileged points of view. Modernism’s technical practices change the relationship between author and reader, turning texts into games, where consumers of the work are expected to see beyond narrative surfaces, and success of the work depends in large measure on the author’s skill at providing the clues which readers require to figure things out.

Lolita is a wonderful example. Lolita’s funny specifically because the naive and not particularly observant narrator has no idea what’s going on. The woman he believes he’s able to control is cheating: we see that, the narrator doesn’t, and the comedy becomes increasingly farcical as her cheating becomes more and more brazen. This is a game, a textual one, in which readers are expected to perform a particular type of mental activity to successfully consume the work.

Where Modernism in print is fixed in a single dimension - constrained by its medium of distribution - computer-generated or -mediated Modernism is far more free. Narrative can change in real time under algorithmic control established by authors, opening new authorial possibilities which can be radical or subtle depending on intent. We explore these possibilities everywhere in TriadCity.

For starters, we can dynamically change the text encountered on a reader-by-reader basis, imposing reader subjectivity in a literal way. You and I may walk our characters into the same room at the same moment, and find it described differently to each of us. Where I may find it a drab and unexceptional space, you may experience it as, say, subtly menacing, perhaps by the implication that someone is hiding. Your character may find a larger number of visible items presented to view, while mine may literally not see all of the things that actually are there. Even more radically, one of our characters may see people or things which in fact are not there: we can impose hallucinatory visual and auditory experiences simulating schizophrenia, without necessarily telling you this is happening. We can vary these experiences from reader to reader, or by whole classes of the characters through which reader-participants engage with the work. This is a powerful and very wide authorial tool which is not possible in pre-digital media.

TriadCity uses multiple software techniques to enable these experiences. We can begin with a base text which can be modified dynamically depending on individual character histories, strengths, and proclivities. Or authors can provide multiple texts describing the same space, one of which will be chosen by the computer at runtime under the author’s algorithmic control: characters with attributes ABC will be shown text one, while those with attributes XYZ will be shown text four. Or the computer can dynamically generate whole sub-narratives composed of randomized phrases or other raw material which it assembles in real time — we do this to generate certain classes of dreams for instance, which characters experience while sleeping. The computer can produce AI-driven characters to interact with, and can tailor their attributes specifically for the human-driven characters encountered. This results in a highly dynamic experience with narrative subjectivity under authorial control.

The width of these possibilities enables pure cacophony — not what TriadCity authors typically intend. Most deploy them subtly. I'll frequently produce descriptions which vary by only two or three words depending on the moral alignment of perceiving characters. A "good" character will experience the hearth as warm and inviting, while an "evil" character will experience it as glaring or harsh. These differences are often merely of tone, or emotional nuance. They serve to underscore the thematic centrality of "good" and "evil" in TriadCity: what these terms mean there is demonstrated by these subjective narrative shifts.

I know of no other sustained narrative project which imposes subjectivity of this scope on participants’ experience.

TriadCity mobilizes the Modernist technical palette in other ways too. Textual and linguistic games are endemic, from regions narrated in Pig Latin to a prison of puns — titled "PUNishment", natch — to which misbehaving miscreants can be sentenced. Human-driven characters will dream. We shift narrative voices and points of view, and associative games are ubiquitous. We everywhere build narrative resonance by juxtaposition and fragmentation, rather than continuity. We impose radical forms of consciousness such as the schizophrenia mentioned earlier. We have narrators who'll speak to certain classes of characters while remaining silent with others, and others who lie. These ideas and many others are all ways we adapt Modernist techniques to our multidimensional medium.

Digital media free Modernism from the constraint of linearity imposed by printed distribution. Nabokov's printed and bound Lolita will aways cheat in the same way at the same time in the same place every time she's encountered, by the narrator and by readers. A TriadCity Lolita may or may not. And, you may see and understand her, or like Nabokov's dim narrator you may not. It depends. The medium makes this possible.

Robert Natkin abstract