Progress on BART interactive fiction

I threw out the first prototype trying to write a train simulation from scratch and started over using Emily Short’s Inform7 extension Transit System. Now, I have two working train lines, the Red Line going from Daly City to Richmond, and the Yellow Line going from Daly City to Antioch. I could not quite figure out how to make the trains go north and then turn around and come south again and still be able to tell the direction of the travel from the platform. I’m leaning towards having separate north and south lines for each train, arriving at their correct platforms within the station.

Then, because I went all through the 24th St Mission station (the agent kindly let me in free to take notes!) I thought more about the level of detail for the game. I could stick with a very simple model or could make it very walkable in a way that means by playing the game you’d learn the geography. Leaning towards starting simple but having a placeholder for each station, then expanding the station descriptions and maps gradually as I go.

I also implemented (early this morning!) player choice for mobility and sightedness. I may write something for cane use but I sort of don’t want to write service dog, maybe because I know almost nothing about them but also because I am not super fond of dogs. It could be an expansion later. But, I’m figuring out how to make the choices impact each room, thing, and the player experience. I may write a “tap” command that would work like an extra sense in the Touchy Feely sensory extension. I could replace “look” with “tap” for example but I’m leaning towards, “look” will say something either practical or snarky (randomly). The practical would encourage the blind or low vision character to listen, tap (with cane), feel, smell. I have to figure out what “examine” would be understood as (feel for objects, tap for a room, maybe, and “listen attentively” if it’s an NPC). I ended up last night late reading blind wheelchair user forums for thoughts on handling blind/low vision plus manual or powerchair use together in descriptions of rooms or actions.

Coming this weekend an initial github repo with (playable) early versions of the game for testing. There will not be much game there yet but the mechanisms will work and you can board trains and walk (or roll) around.

Notes on 24th street station, I spent my lunch hour there yesterday taking notes and drawing maps. I sat one bench over from the Raccoon McDonalds guy while I ate my burrito and scribbled in my notebook in the Northeast plaza. A lady was selling tamales there – we smiled at each other a lot as i ate my delicious burrito – I saw someone with a chihuahua in a sweater, Lots of music in the background including, in El Farolito, some mariachi guys who wandered in with guitars, accordion, and a big speaker on a hand truck, the murals, rather a lot of pigeons, the tall washingtonia palms, the chinese donut place, silver stone coffee tea cafe, the Southwest corner plaza and its lively market scene, construction going on in the concourse level, saxophone player in the stairwell, the lovely arched ceilings that make me think of how some airport architecture is, like a hangar or wings, the abstract concrete bas reliefs in both majestic stairwells and the strange ridging of the walls (for decoration? for acoustics?) Anti pigeon nails everywhere in high up places. Of course the elevators…. And the platform with its brown and orange tile, its mysterious locked rooms, its beige “contact agent” phones which I longed to pick up but did not quite dare.

The game will have magic, and time travel, by the way! Working title, “Transitory”.

Visit to the SF Lighthouse

As part of the CripTech symposium I went along on a tour of the Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired a couple of weeks ago. Chris Downey, an architect who is on their Board of Directors, kindly gave us the tour and the benefit of his insight into the architectural design of the space.

The lobby was designed to feel welcoming to people who might be coming to the Lighthouse for the first time, or really for anyone. It’s a spacious central space in the complex, connecting through a large, open, glass walled stairwell to the floors above and below. It’s possible to hear people talking or laughing from other areas so you are aware of social activity nearby in the space. I was really impressed with the auditory environment, as I really could feel the warmth of “other people are here” without it being distracting or echoing in any way. The walls were lined in some kind of sound baffle type of felt (I think) with a design of wooden slats overlaid that affect the acoustics of the space and are also quite beautiful.

After being there all morning, the street and then the food court we had lunch in were noticeably inhospitable in their acoustics. I realized I felt more relaxed and able to focus while we were on the tour of the building.

There is plenty of natural light, and also bright but not overwhelming overhead lights in long strips going north to south for extra orientation cues for partially sighted people. There were also interesting “light walls” with big glowing panels, and sliding controls which anyone can adjust to play with the color of the light.

stairwell with wall of windows

The flooring is set up so that there are navigable edges for shorelining through the hallways. Travel paths are polished concrete, and seating or other areas are carpeted with metal edges to give more information to cane users about navigating the space. The stairs have distinctive kinds of wood (I think different at the landings so that there is a different sound from a cane tap) and bright but not overly reflective metal edges for high contrast (again, good for people with partial vision).

One especially beautiful touch – the handrails around the stairwell were the softest, silkiest wood with an unusual and nice-feeling shape, slightly concave on the side facing the travel path, and then curved in a slightly irregular way – not a half-circle or half-oval but a more organic feeling shape to fit a hand. If you visit, don’t miss feeling the handrails.

Here’s a picture of Chris demonstrating another thoughtful and elegant touch: the reception area countertops have subtle niches in the edge of the counter to allow a white cane to rest there without slipping to the floor. The photo also shows the wooden acoustic slats that line the wall and the thin metal boundary between concrete travel pathway and carpeted reception area.

Chris Downey

We saw the event rooms, training kitchen, science lab which I think is for making things and doing electronics or computer workshops, and a little maker space with large braille embossing printers and 3-D printers. The art all around the space was really neat, a lot of it from the collection of Donald Sirkin, the guy who left over 100 million dollars to the Lighthouse in his will. There was also a memorial wall talking about Sirkin and his life. (On my to-do list: write a Wikipedia page for Sirkin.)

As a wheelchair user I also noticed the spacious design, since there were several wheelchair users along on the tour we would get into a few narrow hallways, but each time that happened and there was a sort of bottleneck, I was able to go around the circumference of that section of the building and circle back to the “front” of the tour. There were points at each end and at the middle of the building on each floor where the hallways opened up to wider spaces so there were opportunities to regroup and the space didn’t feel claustrophobic. I appreciate not feeling trapped and being able to move freely around a space!

A few years ago I wrote a short text adventure for an unconference space, along with obtaining a tactile map of the interior of the building. It was a simple hack job to give the layout of the rooms. I started thinking through ways to make a much better one for the Lighthouse. So, a textual game where you can walk through a space and develop a feel for its geography and layout. To be done well, this should integrate a holistic impression of the different spaces and how they can be traversed or explored, rather than some straight “visual description” information it would need to include the ways that a space can be experienced by someone blind or with partial vision.

Playing with similar ideas a bit in Inform7, in writing “room” descriptions from the point of view of a wheelchair user, which for me, includes not just an awareness of slopes but of the feel of surfaces and whether they are pleasant (marble is amazing) or jarring (literally). One or two words can indicate that “you” the reader are wheeled. I think that can have an interesting effect on game play. For the Lighthouse, I might try just describing the lobby and a couple of connected rooms as an experiment. Since I am not blind or vision impaired I would need to pair up with someone or do lots of interviewing folks to do this project well if I did it for real! My 4-room experiment of being in a sort of fantasy world game setting, on wheels, gave me a little shiver of recognition to play through, even though I had just written it myself and it was not a surprise be in a garden and then to see the words “You roll into the gazebo.” Yet it was still a surprise, a pleasantly non-alienating one. Is there a word for de-alienating in a healing way, that makes you realize the ways you are alienated (from yourself or from participation or acknowledgement) in default representations? It made me think that representing “you” the player of interactive fiction as disabled along different axes (as living and experiencing reality in particular ways) could be a really powerful game.

Thanks again to Chris and to the Lighthouse and to Karen Nakamura who invited me to CripTech! I particularly enjoyed the tour and am still thinking hard about aesthetics and universal design & how our concept of whose experiences are important affect design & engineering decisions. A beautiful example of technology in action to make a pleasant and functional environment. If we do get a San Francisco Disability Cultural Center someday, I hope it will take the example of the Lighthouse and follow their lead!

Messing with Inform7 today

Thinking about this because I started showing Inform7 to my son. Inform7 is very elegant game programming language and interactive development environment. I recommend it! I think he will be teaching me some Unity in return…

Years ago I did a lot of coding for a MUD, a text based multiplayer interactive fiction game. After playing lots of MUDs, MUSHes and MOOs through the 90s I am not quite sure when I started coding but seems like late 90s, mostly for a MUD called Arcane Nites. It was fun being an “immortal”, helping new players and acting as a game moderator to resolve disputes and stop abusive or spammy behavior, often along with another immortal, an enormous macho giant named Stomp, who I only later realized was a woman older than me, old enough to be a grandma. Also later I heard from players who were like, 12 year olds at the time (which explains the frequent need for moderation). (Hi, y’all!)
In fact, I wrote a lot of code while pregnant or while actually wearing my son in a front carrier. Gaming is truly in his blood!
I remember working on some kind of in-game messaging or bulletin board system; little projects like expanding the “socials”, actions you could take in game, and having great time writing them to look properly grammatical depending on whether you were doing the action, seeing the action, or experiencing the action on yourself. I wrote code to made liquid containers behave properly with different liquids, and I think I got obsessed for a while with adding other physical properties to objects but don’t remember much of that.
But, the main fun of MUDs for me was writing new areas of the game. I’ve talked about this before but I wrote one based on the Chinese classic, Hong Lou Meng, translated a few different ways, “Story of the Stone” or “Dream of the Red Chamber” or “Dream of Red Mansions”. I had three different translations of it, drawing up elaborate character lists, geneologies, and so on to keep track of the different names of characters across the translations. In my version, you could walk around a small part of the town and the two houses of the Jia (or Chia) clan and the extensive gardens behind the houses. There were supernatural elements – you could end up in realm of the Stone itself, and there was also a dreamlike, kind of racy cave sequence where you traveled in time, or something, and ended up finding Hsi-men Ching and Golden Lotus from Jin Ping Mei.

Anyway, today I went looking for these files and started converting my version of the Battle of Kurukshetra from the Mahabharata into Inform7. I don’t have a good key to the old game data files so I am having to figure out a lot of weird data! It’s fun. If I can do this successfully then I’ll put the areas up as standalone playable interactive fiction. Since in the MUDs they were written for, the “point” was not just to explore, but to kill everything and loot its corpse, taking equipment and wearing it, and so on, I will have to either figure out some different experience (perhaps a more wholesome one of puzzle or mystery solving) or write a battle system for Inform7. Or, I may just release them as areas to wander and explore. Most of the point was absorbing the atmosphere, really.

Warcross is awesome!!!

Warcross continues to deliver the goods! I love this book. The gamer/hacker heroine in her ripped up jeans and flannel shirt has now gone through the first draft for the Great Games or whatever they are called, and was picked first to be on the Phoenix Riders team even though she is a lowly level 28. The captain of her team, Asher Wing, is a wheelchair user, which made me instantly happy. I was trying to figure out from the description what kind of chair he had and I am thinking powerchair since his headrest was mentioned. Another named character on an opposing team was a former Paralympian.

Scenes of clever hacking… loving descriptions of leaping around and fighting in the Game . . . And she has moved from her first swanky hotel room to some sort of team training mansion where she has a suite with a rooftop patio with her own private infinity pool.

They have also been to a great party at a disco which was seamlessly wheelchair accessible with great augmented reality. There are so many adorable details like that there is a (female) character named Hamilton.

I also dig that we see more of Emika’s motivation and backstory for the high school hack that got her arrested.

This is like the perfect antidote for the boring sexist barfbag that was Ready Player One. It’s assuaging my soul!

Messing around with Habitica

I tried Habitica some years ago but did not get into it. This week I gave it another try – now I love it! It’s a to-do list or checklist app where setting tasks and checking them off also levels you up in a weird little role-playing game. After three days I’m a level 3 warrior wearing a very strange purple helmet and attempting to hatch a wolf egg. Yes, I am susceptible to gamification of damn near anything!

I normally keep my to-do list in Remember The Milk, not always well tagged, but with some tasks scheduled, and many more in an enormous backlog sorted by creative or domestic projects. The scheduled tasks often slip. I’ll postpone them for a day or a week. Calling to schedule a dentist appointment has slipped a week for oh…. so many months now. Somehow I never get to that one.

I tried recently to add some new habit formation into RTM, so that I would get up and stretch more often, or meditate for 5 minutes. This hasn’t worked out super well. These small tasks clutter up my main list.

Enter Habitica! It sorts items into habits, dailies, and to-do. Each item can get tagged but also gets a difficulty ranking: trivial, easy, medium, or hard.

It has a column for habits (which you can do several times a day, with a plus or minus for positive or negative rating). Now, stretching, doing tai chi, triaging a few bugs here and there, or scooping the cat box don’t clutter up my more complicated to-do lists. I am ridiculously motivated to glance over the Habits list to see if there’s anything quick I can do to level up my character a tiny bit.

There are also Daily Habits, which I’m approaching more cautiously. I don’t want to overcommit in this area.

The main to-do list is for one-time or rare tasks, and has more scope for complexity. You can add smaller checklist items to make gradual progress on multi-part tasks.

So far, I’m only starting to explore the game mechanics. I’ve joined a party where we battle monsters by doing stuff on our lists. At some point you can use in-game coins (earned by leveling up) to equip your avatar with useful equipment for battle. It’s silly and fun.

The useful stuff so far: I have settled into doing the Habits and Dailies, then forcing myself to face up to the to-do list items. If I want to level up then…. omg…. I have to do one of those things! It’s been working.

I’m considering adding “rewards” that i can buy with in-game coins, things I like doing but that eat up a lot of time or are actively unhealthy. For example, I could make “Play one day in Stardew Valley” cost a significant amount. “Mess around with Pokemon” might cost less. Making my game playing depend on progress in ANOTHER GAME that is basically real life has a certain appeal! “Zone out reading Twitter for infinity time instead of going to sleep” would take all my coins and flush them right down the toilet.

habitica avatar