Sunday, November 26, 2017

E-Lit 4 Kids Exhibit in Porto

At this past summer's conference of the Electronic Literature Organization in Porto, Portugal, we put together an exhibit of e-lit for kids to help spread the word about these amazing works.  The exhibit was curated by Astrid Ensslin, Maria Goicoechea, Lucas Ramada Prieto, and myself and featured some of the most amazing works of digital literature made for children.  But like all great children's literature, though marketed to children, these works appeal to all ages.

The exhibit featured a wide range of works, from picture book apps to interactive fiction.  I'll create separate posts to highlight some of these works.  Needless to say, these scholars are top authorities on electronic literature for children, and it was an honor to work with them.

This is also a good time to mention that the call is out for ELO 2018 in Montreal (Dec 15 deadline).  If you work in the area of digital fiction for children or young adults, consider submitting.

Lucas Ramada Prieto, Maria Goicoechea, a happy patron, me, and Manuel Portela at our exhibit

Jessica Pressman, Maria Goicoechea, Astrid Ensslin, and Lucas Ramada Prieto

Astrid, Maria, and Lucas


Here were the featured works, which make a nice reading list for you.
  • The Marino Family & María Goicoechea, Switcheroo/El cambiazo, 2015-17
  • Simogo, The Sailor's Dream, 2014
  • Patrick Smith / Vectorpark, Metamorphabet, 2015
  • José Alfonso Ochoa Aguilar, Árbol con patas, 2013
  • Inkle Studios, 80 Days, 2014
  • Kate Pullinger, Chris Joseph, Mez Breeze (The BradField Company / Dreaming Methods), Inanimate Alice Episode 6: The Last Gas Station, 2016
  • Brian Main, Lil' Red, 2013
  • Gabriel Smetzer, Flewn, 2016
  • David Wiesner, David Wiesner's Spot, 2015
  • Les inéditeurs, Boum!, 2015
  • Stella-Charles Fisher, Ten, 2017
  • Harriet Fisher, Snapchat elit, 2017
  • Wallace Edwards, Augmented beasts: AR pop-up book, 2017
  • Álvaro Andrade Garcia, Poemas de Brinquedo (Toy Poems), 2016

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Transcripts in E-Lit for Kids

At this year's ICIDS (International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling), Maria Goicoechea and I gave a paper reflecting on the use of transcrips in digital stories for children.  In the paper, we liken the transcript to the transitional object, drawing on Piaget, via Winnicott, Poulet, and Schwab.  (I'll post the pre-publication paper if it is permitted in a bit.)

The primary focus of our paper was to consider the ways children read digital literature as compared to the way they read (or are read to) traditional print literature and the way adults read.

Fundamental to our project was a sense that rereading plays a crucial role in our joy of encountering texts.  Our hypothesis was that children will enjoy their interactive reading experiences better if the systems produce a transcript or playscript of their reading experience.

I can't go into the whole argument, but two ideas came out of that presentation and the audeince response.

  1.  Transcripts might be more like photographs from a trip than a full re-reading
  2.  The desire for transcripts is not limited to digital literature but relates to many forms of interactive game play.
In this second point, we noted the proliferation of game playscripts in video recordings (Let's Play Videos) and eSports broadcasts.

Our initial study suggests that e-lit for kids should consider ways to produce a playscript or transcript, not only to give comfort to children, but to enhance the reading experience (improving comprehension and deepening interpretation). 

Here are our slides.

Friday, September 2, 2016

New Writing Platform: Ink


(Updated 11:50pm)
I must say, I was so excited to start penning with Ink, the scripting platform created by the folks over at Inkle (80 Days, Sorcery!).  The look of the language was super-lite, high level (from a programming standpoint), and full of affordances for writing stories.  I've been conducting some experiments in the language, and my early review is that this is a fantastic platform for introducing the core concepts of IF-writing, especially choice-based IF, though if you really want to go for the full experience, you're still probably better off with a more full authoring system like Inform or a merely using JavaScript (or some combo as we do with Undum and JS in the Mrs. Wobbles stories).

The Basics

Despite the liquid metaphor of its name, Ink uses a metaphor from the world of needlecraft: knots, threads, gathers (though sometimes they switch the metaphor, for example, tunnels).  The basic idea is that you write text that leads to choices (diverts), which can join together again in a gather.  The team have built this as a kind of general purpose text narrative choice system to be incorporated in lots other environs.

Ink even has its own editor (Inky), though it does not yet have a much-needed (please, folks, please) out-of-the-box author-ready Unity or JS implementation, which for now makes incorporation in a classroom challenging. That said, being able to edit and see the results as you type (reminiscent of the split screen of Inform 7) is enormously helpful when experimenting and helps with the debugging.  The editor has some nice features: autofill recommendations, for example -- though this did not always work.  But it's missing some features that I'd take as a given (search and replace).  That means you've got to scroll your way through the code.

Best news, Inky can export a web version that can easily be reformatted (a la Twine) with a bit of styling (yay!) for some independent publishing (without needing to post on Ink's host).

Documentation (full description at github).

As a choice-based system, the key syntax offers choices, merely by placing an *
     * Here is choice one.
But you can augment that by distinguishing display text from the choice text.
    * [Here is what you will see when choosing] Here is what you will see afterward.

But sometimes you need to fork, and for that they have knots (their name for lexias or chunks) and diverts (-> arrows that link to other knots).

Options not chosen will remain if you return, allowing for persistent conversation trees (think Monkey Island). Or you can make a choice "sticky" so that it will not disappear.

Gather: A point that draws the reading back into a single flow from a series of choices.

Glue -- Okay, now the metaphors are mixing too much. I'll let you find out what glue is.

Threads: Diverts that allow you to call two lexia at the same time.

Tunnels: These are diverts that send the text there and back, like subroutines.

The system can handle variables and very simple conditional statements -- (although these can get a bit tangly if you're trying to do something more sophisticated -- Mark Marino king of the yucky code work around).

The Good:

First, let me say, I really am enjoying using Ink for authoring. Together with Inky, it's just a lot of fun.  One reason is that it has some built in features that let you do some key CYOA/IF variation quite simply, elegantly event.  Ink is particularly strong at text variation and fairly good for gates and other conditions.  For example, I can alter a sentence easily with these inserts:

You've seen this { once | twice } already.

That structure gives me two versions of the same sentence, one the first time I see that lexia, the other the second (and none of them on the third.

The  {~cat | dog} jumped over the fence.

Will give me either a sentence about a cat or a dog.

Here we have some basic text substitution reminiscent of projects built on RiTa, Daniel Howe's Processing language tool kit.

Ink can also easily use simple conditions.

{thefirstscene: Here's the second part.}

This line will only give you "Here's the secondpart" if you've gone to "thefirstscene."
Or you can set conditional text based on variables by writing something like this:
{mystory > your attention: You start to get a bit board.}

 Such gates are key to basic Story-space like gates used in early Hypertext.  More importantly, they are the magic behind the subtle variations in Inkle Studios productions such as 80 Days and Sorcery.   Now that we've left the printed page, it's pleasurable to see variations of text that go beyond branching and into something more like changes of state.

However, you cannot use multiple conditions or an "or" condition in the basic text environment.  Which leads me to...

The Bad:

Ink is not yet (and may never be) a fully fledged programming language.  You can't insert images into the scripting language.  And, building a story out of flags triggered by leaps creates an awful lot of spaghetti code.   I've ended up writing some very strange jumps just to set flags.  Perhaps this will be developed in future iterations.

Also, currently Ink has no random number generator -- though it does have a shuffle function, which can serve that purpose {more or less}.

Also, though flags seem to work in most of the configurations, other times, you've got to kick the story out to another node just to work a bit of more complex logic, for example augmenting a variable and then running an evaluation.  In some instances, you can do this through Ink's functions (which are more or less lexia), but other times need to divert the flow entirely and cannot merely tunnel back where you were (specifically when wanting to call a tunnel as one of several text substitutions).

That said, I find the language rather joyous to write in because -- and here's the important part -- it keeps the focus on the text, the choices, and the variations, which is, of course, at the heart of choice-based IF writing.

Choose your Own Conclusion:

There are an increasing number of platforms out there for writing IF with a particular boom in choice-based IF.  While Ink does not give us much freedom as scripting in a programming language like JS, it gives you access to a code level that you don't get from the visual interfaces of Twine or Inklewriter.  Using Ink to write with children would be fun -- though you'd need a pre-built Unity framework to import it into. While there is a plugin for Unity integration and a {fairly complex} demo game, there is not yet a Unity file a newbie (to both Ink and Unity) could easily customize as in the case of using Undum, whose tutorial serves that purpose.

 I could see kids liking the editor interface of Inky though. In any event, I plan to continue experimenting with it and will report back as I encounter new developments.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Ink and the Interface

The kids and I have been enjoying 2 app games from Inkle Studios: 80 Days and Sorcery.  80 Days is an homage to and adaptation of the Jules Verne classic novel Around the World in 80 Days.  Sorcery! is an adaptation of Steve Jackson's game book series from the 1980s, which creates a fun throughline from the print-based models to the pad/app models of today.

Sorcery's combat system

Both of these projects feature beautifully designed interfaces, running atop Inklestudios Ink scripting language (more on that soon). Take a look at the map interface from Sorcery!

Although these games feature gorgeous design from start to finish, what distinguishes these games from the current crop of interactive narratives is their animation between scenes. Basically, the transitions.  In 80 Days, when you move from location to location, you travel in lines across an iridescent globe, drawn from the cinematic tradition you might see in Casablanca or Raiders of the Lost Arc. In Sorcery!, you move as if a game piece on a topographical map from a table-top RPG.   Both of these visualizations evoke the mood and feel of their content -- but also create a sense of the visual immersion of what is otherwise a text-based app.

In fact, what Inklestudios seems to do best in these two games is to represent change in state, change and progress in location.

By contrast, the textual passages are inserted in book-like form, which keeps us in this book-lover's world.  In Sorcery!, the new locations appear as pages remediated from the game books.  In 80 Days, we get the fabulous steam-punk inflected narrative locations which pick up admirably from where Verne left off.  Following the model of its source material, the story segments in 80 Days are only loosely connected from location to location, such that it is clear they are contemporaneous and belong to the same story moment.  I must admit, though, that I found myself longing for some culmination of the steam punk world war that was being detailed in Europe.  But it drops off by the Americas, again, apropos of the model largely because at its heart 80 Days is a resource-management journey game.

80 Days dialogue/combat
Both games feature stores for purchase and interactions with NPCs.  For 80 Days the interaction is comprised of dialogue as Passapartout seeks info new routes.  For Sorcery! the interaction is a fairly straight-forward combat system based on rounds.

These two pieces once reminded us of the power of interface, even if the underlying game play is the same.  Consider how similar Choice of Games or unformatted Twine games can feel.  It reminds me of how similar board games can be (how many monopolies...).  I wouldn't go so far as to say these games only differ in their skin, but that their visual structure creates a perception of greater difference.

 I suspect player expectations (and certainly the reviewers) will only increase their desire for more fabulous interfaces.

Inkle Studios is Jon Ingold, Joseph Humfrey, Tom Kail, and Michael Whalen, and the kids and I look forward to what they create next.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Choose Your Own Hamlet & Wheel of Misfortune at YALLWEST 2016

YALLWEST, the West Coast YA and Middle Grade book celebration, was a book fest more than an e-lit fest, but there were two key moments that dig. lit folks would dig.

Ryan North's To Be or Not To Be!
The first was a session by Ryan North, featuring his forthcoming Romeo And/Or Juliet, the sequel to his To Be or Not to Be, Hamlet-based CYOA.  Ryan is well-known for his Dinosaur Comics and his work on Squirrel Girl and other comic titles.  But this venture is a pure labor of love. He self-published the Hamlet book following a successful Kickstarter campaign.

I stopped Ryan after a panel to chat with him about choice-based fiction.  The question was whether there's room for more choice-based fiction in today's MG and YA markets.  His answer, an enthusiastic YES. He said he loves the possibilities for branching fiction and that it was his love for the form that led him to self-publish his Hamlet, proving to his publisher that there WAS a market.  

Our second notable encounter was with Pseudonymous Bosch, the author of the Secret and Bad Magic series, one of my daughters all around favorites.  

At the end of YALLWEST, Bosch co-led with C. Alexander London an interactive session called StoryMob in which audience members collaborated with authors Veronica Roth (Divergent), Ransom Riggs (Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children), and Victoria Aveyard (Red Queen) to write fan fiction.

The highlight was the Wheel of Misfortune, a physical multi-colored narrative device spinner, which featured possible plot reversals, including Bureaucratic Dinosaurs and Heartbreaking Terminal Illness. The WoM was a beautiful send-up of the the novelistic technique of the reversal, while at the same time an random-plot generator that parodied formulaic (algorithmic even) kids' book writing.   When Heartbreaking Terminal Illness came up and was chosen multiple times, Bosch complimented the audience's commercial instincts.

This event reminded me of interactive lit because it featured collaborative writing with an aleatory component, reminiscent of storywriting games, but which also made some hay out of overused story devices, which for its satirical eye toward mass-produced commercial fiction and its frivolity, never ceases to amuse.

These two moments encouraged me to return to the joy of working with my two favorite collaborators on our choice-based projects and also reminded me how much readers are also writers, something George Landow (of Hypertext fame) tried to teach me many years ago. Certainly, something all writers of fiction (digital or print) should keep in mind, though they might be led to believe otherwise by the bureaucratic dinosaurs of the publishing world.
Authors, Audience, and the Wheel of Misfortune

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Talking Gender at YALLWEST 2016

The Mrs. Wobbles writing team
This past weekend at YALLWEST in Santa Monica, writers and fans of middle grade and young adult fiction gathered to celebrate the imagination as lines of superfans waited to hear their favorite authors or get a preview copy of the latest offerings.  The Mrs. Wobbles writing team and I were on hand to see what we could learn, joining the throng of mostly teenage girls.  As a friend pointed out, when my son arrived, the number of boys in attendance doubled. So gender was on our mind as we hit our first stop a panel on writing strong female characters.

At the panel entitled Strong Female Characters (Ugh!), Cecil Castellucci, Susane Colasanti, Michelle Gagnon, Ellen Oh, Mary Pearson, Sarah Raasch discussed their strategies for creating empowering girl and boy characters, while groaning that they still needed to have that conversation.  At issue, how does one create a strong character when narrative conflict arises out of confronting weakness.

Discussing their favorite strong female characters, the authors offered a litany of classic favorites, including Pippi Longstocking, Nancy Drew, Anne (of Green Gables), Hermione, and Felicity, the American Girl.  Castelucci mentioned Princess Leia, as she has published a novel about her.  Actually, there was some debate over Nancy Drew, who Gagnon noted is always introduced (in the original texts) with a mention of her hair, clothes, and waist size.  Did we ever learn the waist size of the Hardy Boys?   Equally telling were the favorite male characters with two authors choosing Pony from The Outsiders as a classic sensitive male.  But was there necessarily something empowering about presenting sensitive male characters?  Ellen Oh also noted that more than strong characters of gender, YA lit lacked strong protagonists of color in a world where the default assumption is that characters are white.  Maybe question that best summed up the conundrum of this panel was how come we don't have to have panels on writing strong male characters?

When I think of strong women characters in e-lit, I think of the works of Emily Short, whose works from Galatea to Bee feature strong and complex female characters of a variety of ages, but also of the Twine revolution, which brings works that extend beyond gender binaries.  I also think of Felicity Banks and her compelling Scarlet Sails as well as Birdland (YA) by BP Hennessy.  As I mentioned in my talk at The Inadequate Human, certainly interactive fiction seems more open to more possibilities of gender -- both in the customization of avatar characters (Choice of Games) and in the types of characters that are presented.

When writing Mrs. Wobbles, we think a lot about gender and stories, specifically in Switcheroo, in which Derik goes to bed as a boy who can't walk and wakes up as a girl who can.  In the tale, Derik tries to behave the way a girl would, to guess at "girl knowledge," and to figure out to what extent s/he is his gender. As some have pointed out, this isn't really a story about being transgendered but instead a meditation on our cultural constructions around being a boy or a girl and more importantly the weird concepts boys have about what it must be like to be a girl.

The current generation (in the first-world West?) is growing up with more open conversations about being transgendered and gender fluidity.  Gagnon, writing as M.G. Hennesseey, has a forthcoming book The Other Boy, which features a transgendered protagonist, and this is hopefully just one of many forthcoming novels that treat the intricacies of gender in the lives of contemporary teens.   No doubt many of our children have more open minds to what it means to be a boy or a girl.  My suspicion, and the suspicion of the panel, is that adults are the ones that close this innate openness about gender in children, by purchasing color-coded clothing, by (over)reacting to behaviors, or not letting boys peruse "girl" books.

The kids and I look forward to next year's YALLWEST and hope that these strong girl readers will drag their brothers along, too!

And as long as we have the question, who are your favorite strong girl characters in print or e-lit?

Monday, April 25, 2016

Prize for Spanish Children's E-Lit (9/15/16)

My amiga Maria Goicoechea sends word of a competition for digital literature in espanol.  The deadline is September 15.  Take a look and consider entering.  I'm assuming if you can read the following, you can enter!

Premio Ciberia de literatura digital infantil y juvenil

Ciberia Project, a través del proyecto eLITE-CM (Edición literaria electrónica), convoca para este año 2016 la I Edición del Premio Ciberia de Literatura Digital, este año dedicado a la producción de piezas para el público infantil y juvenil, nuestros pequeños y no tan pequeños nativos digitales.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Hello, World

In Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw commissions the creation of the ultimate interactive book, the Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, for his granddaughter.  This book, called a Propædeutic Enchiridion, is the fantastical version of the Dynabook, a responsive text which can serve not just as a text, but as a teacher and a guide.  As the child engages with it, this primer would form around the interests of the child, respond to her interaction, grow with the child and nurture that child's growth.  That is the dream of the creator of digital literature for children -- the vision behind all those iPads in public schools -- and the subject of countless tales of NeverEnding Stories -- inspired by the immersive experience of reading itself.  But there are lighter dreams as well.

iPhone Screenshot 1
Since my children first began interacting with books, long before they started reading, I began to wonder what the world of electronic literature had to offer them.  As it turns out, there is a long-standing category of books which my classmate back at LMU once called hypotext -- books with feelies, books with buttons and sounds, pop-up books and even edible ones.

But now we ware seeing the first and second generation of digitally born enhanced reading experiences for kids.  Artists have begun to explore the potential for these new kinds of reading experiences.  I am interested and invested in seeing how these will develop, looking from the vantage point of a storyteller, scholar, and, well, dad.

While imagining what these new reading experiences might look like, my children and I began collaborating on a series of interactive stories under the name Mrs. Wobbles and the Tangerine House.  You can see the first of those here:  Working on these has given us the opportunity to reflect on what makes interactive writing powerful and engaging.  How to make interactive books that don't subordinate the literary to the novel. What does digital interactivity offer writers? What more can children's books be?

Of course, in entering this conversation, we are following the work of Brenda Laurel, Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph, and Lucas Ramada Prieto who as creators and scholars have created and documented this space.  We follow storygame makers like Andy Campbell and Mez Breeze and artists in Interactive Fiction, like Emily Short, Aaron Reed, Jacob Garbe.  We follow the Twiners, the Inklewriters, and the Choice of Games-ers.  We also are following a growing rise of interest in electronic literature for children, following, among others, the recent exhibit of children's electronic literature in Norway.

Much of this work will tie in electronic literature for adults, drawn from the artists and scholars o the Electronic Literature Organization, which since 1998 has been at the forefront of this new form, networking creators and critics while curating wonderful new works.

On this blog, I will offer reviews of digital literature, reflections on the craft, recommendations for the future, and accounts of the progress in my collaborations with my children.  I will include apps, Interactive Fiction, hypertext, reading platforms (LeapFrog), and whatever else comes along the pike as we toddle, in baby steps, into the Diamond Age.