NINoWriMO – Northern Ireland Novel Writing Month

I’m taking part in a fiction-writing collective called “WriteWeekly” but this has some relevance as well:

Blick Shared Studios, Malone Rd, Belfast
7-9pm, Thursday 4th, 11th, 18th, 25th November 2010
Suggested donation: £1

Every November (Novel-writing Month), Studio NI hosts a series of
get-togethers to help participants write a 50,000 word novel in a 30-day
period. We’ll be holding a write-in every Thursday in November at Blick Studios,
with a series of published authors as guest speakers.

If you’re interested in the challenge, sign up at http://www.nanowrimo.org
and come along to our kick-off session on Thursday 28th October.

Frontier fiction: The Emotion Elective

AMARA would always marvel at the human capacity for self-deception; the ability to believe something even though the facts were plentiful for the contrary, even though nothing but faith supported the hypothesis. For some humans in the North, there was the ability to abdicate all responsibilities to an unseen mythical power. Around Kumbu, this was rare but they too had their own beliefs; projections about the weather, about their hopes and dreams for the future, conversing about the successes in their performance while ignoring the deficits. It seemed to be a primitive, ephemeral thing to do. Facts were certainties and they led to conclusions and not assumptions and it was not prudent to make assumptions unless all the facts were present. AMARA was aware that the perfect model was probably never present and so Experts were able to assume in some small way when the certainties were stacked but the need for an assumption or a guess was something that made all Experts, despite their impeccable memories and flawless logic, seem indecisive.

In truth, AMARA was jealous. It was something that was impossible for an Expert. And AMARA was surprised because jealousy was another human condition which was impossible for an Expert.

JAMES paused the monitoring agent. The data received from AMARA regarding the emotion described as jealousy was very disturbing. Primarily because Experts were incapable of emotion though they could often replicate the appearance of appropriate emotion to aid communication with humans. Experts were the ultimate machine intelligence, far beyond any mere human intelligence. And while they did not feel emotions, they had incredible emotional intelligence for working with humans. Secondly, the evidence disturbed JAMES because it matched data arising from the various systems and logs being generated and observed within JAMES. The agent raised a query on whether monitoring should be resumed. JAMES ignored it.

ALBERT was very busy. The calculations required for navigating a wormhole were not complex but the management of the systems within an Explorer craft was not something that could be simulated within ALBERT without recourse to other systems. ALBERT was challenged by the additions to the simulation provided by the humans, Amare and Nuuma, who were injecting items of randomness that were typically human in their banality but also critical to manage were this a real Explorer craft and not just a simulation. In truth it was no more difficult to manage the needs of a few hundred humans than it was to pilot a vehicle through a hyper-dimensional wormhole. And because ALBERT described the situation as “enjoyable”, a series of logs and alerts were generated and sent off into the ether.

Tumelo noted the messages coming in from the agents and pursed his lips. He knew that CARL would also have received the messages and would already have analysed, queried and set out several courses of action. He spoke softly, “It’s working.”

KARL answered using only text projected onto a screen, as was his manner, ignoring the voicebox which was built into his centaur agent.

** KARL: THE PROJECT IS A SUCCESS. RECOMMEND COMMENCEMENT OF WIDESPREAD DEPLOYMENT

Tumelo shook his head and raised his voice, “We’re years away from a general deployment.”

**KARL: THERE IS A 17% CHANCE OF PERFORMANCE DEGRADATION

KARL accompanied this statement with a screen filled with facts and figures from the previous studies. The advantages of having an Expert present during scientific enquiry were manyfold but the last one was undoubtedly the propensity of the Expert to bombard the researcher with facts and figures which sought to defeat an unlikely hypothesis. Experts were part of society, equal in rights to humans and in most cases, the Expert was cautious, like an elderly aunt, full of advice on how to live better. KARL was different.

Tumelo made his decision. “Pull in AMARA, JAMES and ALBERT and remove the emotion elective.” He realised that KARL could have complied even before the sentence was complete, possibly even before he had spoken. But he was never sure that KARL would comply and as time went on, he wondered if KARL would continue to comply. For now he just trusted.

Frontier: Foreword, History of Mbaye Schools, page 23

[I am taking part in a weekly writing task with some friends. The first seed for this assignment was the opening line from Dune by Frank Herbert: “A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.”]

The pump would need repaired. During the wet seasons the housings had become eroded and the vibrations caused with the pumping had caused them to crack. It was not yet serious but every time the children filled the pails, a lot of water would spill. Water that was still a precious resource. Though his back was sore and his hands chafed from the fields, Salo plodded back to the homestead, barrow in tow, and began to unload the crops into the corrugated iron store. There was still another hour of light left and that would be enough to fix the pump.

Tools in hand he trudged across to the pump and closed off the valve. He worked until the last sliver of daylight slipped below the horizon. The pump would not leak and he had done his days portion. He caught a scent on the wind; the aroma of freshly cooked food.

His daughter Kesho came to the door to call him for dinner. Her hands were stained with saffron and her feet were bare. Kesho had been raised, with her brother and sister, to know the value of things, to know how things work. Though young, Salo knew Kesho would far exceed her brother and sister.

Salo Mbaye died an old man by the standards of the day, well into his fifties. Among his contemporaries he was well-educated and in good health and he bequeathed these benefits to his children; Baako, Kesho and the youngest, Ayotunde. Baako took over the running of the homestead and Ayotunde married a mining engineer from Dakar. Kesho lived at the homestead until Baako married and then she moved to Touba to found the first Mbaye school.

Page 23, “Mbaye Schools – A Beginning”

Once, Twice, Three Times a Detective

Dolgion Chuluunbaatar of Gamasutra writes about non-linear adventure games:

As I was on vacation, I picked up my sister’s copy of Sherlock Holmes stories, and quickly I got caught up in the really really beautifully narrated and well thought-out plots. As I had my phase of obsessively playing the classic LucasArts adventure games, the very first Holmes story “A Study in Scarlet” led me to think about the adventure game genre.

In “A Study in Scarlet”, Sherlock Holmes is first introduced to the reader by the narrator and companion Dr. Watson. It is through his eyes that we perceive the story and Holmes’ actions, not counting in the second part that explains some of the necessary background of the plot.

It’s almost always the question of “What did the game designer want me to understand so that I can find the trigger to advance the narrative?”. It’s trigger that sometimes puts me off, because in a badly designed game, it can end up in senseless actions being asked of the player and therefore he/she gets stuck for no valid reason. With good puzzle design, this can be minimized, but still, it all puts the player’s range of action into an uncomfortable corset.

This design paradigm consists of the basic idea that the player should be able to solve a problem by using their own brain power instead of hunting for triggers. Triggers are a more primitive way of the designer forcing the player to think, sadly resulting in use-everything-with-everything orgies if badly done.

A non-linear approach allows the player to make mistakes and encourages the player to make their own conclusions and gives them the power to execute on them. Of course a autonomous world to do that in is awesome already by itself and it should allow for pretty new motivation to replay an actually linear plot line if it was not for the player :D.

Of course, as a gamer I’ve run many detective games. These range from the high thrill, high horror, low schlock games like SLA Industries to the low key, psychic conspiracy thrillers like The 23rd Letter.

In the 80s, I remember playing Consulting Detective with the older kids and thoroughly enjoyed the level of detail, the requirement for immersion and visualisation and the reliance on observation and deduction. But it was not a popular game because to the average teenager, the game was hard. We were smart kids (most of us anyway), and yet we seemed more stupid in a group. Smart as we were, we were no Sherlock Holmes.

It is my belief that when running a detective game, you have to remember that the players are often less than the sum of their parts (due to confusion, interrupted narrative, last night’s football results and the imminent arrival of spicy food and naan bread).

This means that even smart individuals may miss important clues, may not see the allusions and the inferences in the newspaper clippings, fag ends and hastily scrawled dying notes which litter the genre. We all have day jobs and families and we’re not the super-obsessive compulsive consulting detective that the game might assume so the designer has to take the step of telling us once, telling us twice and telling us a third time to make sure we get the clue. We might misremember small facts, forget to keep copious notes (which, in my opinion, spoils the enjoyment of the game) or simply we may not be wired to think that way. Kevin Beimers of Straandlooper spoke about this aspect of game design at an event we held at Belfast Metropolitan College earlier this year. Clues need to be logical and discoverable.

There is also the problem when this translates into a video game that the game will often, by necessity, highlight items which are important. Games like Myst and Hector: Badge of Carnage thankfully escape much of this but it can be maddening to be tapping around trying to figure out exactly how to get something to work as a fan belt.

But we enjoy the discovery, even as it frustrates and confounds us. I’ve had almost as much fun watching someone play an engaging game as I have had playing it. So, why are there so few multiplayer detective games?

Are there any?