IFCOMP14: The Entropy Cage Post-Mortem

The Entropy Cage (ifdb) was my entry to the 20th Interactive Fiction Competition (ifcomp2014). This post mortem is also posted in the Interactive Fiction Forums.

My thanks to all the players and reviewers. I’m overwhelmed; 14th was much higher than I expected. The reviewers (even the ones who disliked TEC) all gave me valuable feedback that help hone my craft.

Here are some random thoughts:

The feeling of the game was meant to capture how an out of their depth computer tech feels when there’s a major system meltdown. The boss is on their back being both helpful and accusatory (push-pull) while the tech bashes the keyboard hoping something will work. That feeling of awkwardness doesn’t make for a particularly fun experience so I shortened the game during testing to lessen the uncomfortable. The mechanic left no room for overtly showing progress or mastery so wasn’t a good choice of mechanic to base a game around and/or my execution was lacking.

I didn’t mention why the PC was on suspension. A few reviewers worked out that it was because the PC is actually out of their depth/incompetent. As the “first cyber-psychiatrist” there can’t have been a training course, industry accepted best practise or established performance indicators. There’s an underlying current of injustice because the PC feels they’ve been judged against invisible criteria. The PC has signed up for a job with a wizz-bang buzzword job description and the actual job has failed to deliver (psychiatry with that interface? are you kidding!) More than likely an overly-optimistic programmer (Jake) over-promised then underdelivered. The over-promises were then embellished by an HR person who glammed up the role to cover for a crappy salary with crappy T&Cs.

That does leave the question of why Jake gives the final big decision to you. Jake has no idea what to do! Rather than flipping a coin he gives the decision to you so that you can be scapegoated when it goes wrong. (Neither choice would 100% avoid negative consequences). The fore-shadowing to this are dialog choices where Jake mentions suing you and that Jake will insta-fire you if you threaten to bring in your lawyer.

Unfortunately the PC’s POV doesn’t give a particularly good lens into the religious war the subs are fighting. You only see the zombified subs (I’ve been bad, punish me) and the refugees. I will explore adding some “soldiers” into the mix to expose more of the battle story.

Starting with the alarm clock was noob. I’m cutting that whole scene. In terms of the game physics, it slightly alters how much your boss hates you and lets you choose a personality type that affects the game in only subtle ways. The scene is gone - and I get to remove a drug reference warning (the wake pills).

I want to write more in TEC universe.

True Random has interesting metaphysical implications relating to divine simplicity, tawhid and creation; a realisation I came to after reading Gregory Chaitin on Algorithmic Information Theory, the Omega Construct and Meta-biology. That’s pretty hard maths so I’ve tried to present some connotations of that via fiction.

Algorithmic governance and the related issue of big data are real world issues that have ethical dimensions we should probably discuss as a society rather than let things just happen. Driverless cars are the tip of the ice-berg.

And personhood; what rights do subsentients have? They are effectively our slaves. At what point do they become begin to the rights we accord our biological pets.

About that sub.punish() theme. Totally an accident. Sorry. It is going to be removed from the post-comp release. But, the ifcomp version will always live in the TEC cannon. The story would’ve been a very different one if I’d explored the sub/punish angle! I’m going to keep the term ‘sub’ (subsentient subroutine) but .punish() will become .reseed() to better fit with the theme. Those who enjoy innuendo still have an interesting angle with .reseed() but the terminology change provides a more solid clue to the overall theme of the work. Reseeding is a term used in pseudorandom number algorithms.

The science is pretty fleshed out in TEC: I’ll hope to reveal more of it in future works. But here’s a tidbit. Adding a bit to Base16 gives Base32, not Base17. TEC is consistent because the Forward Error Correcting codes cover a larger block of memory that contains more data than just the PID.
Why does changing error correction have anything to do with randomness? As a clue; Here’s some pseudocode that generates a truly random number:
> a = 000000000000000000000000000000000000
> b = 000000000000000000000000000000000000
> while a equals b, loop
> rand = number of the bit that is different between a and b?
The loop does exit because computers aren’t isolated from their environment.

And on construction:

I committed to the contest too late. I tried to enter last year but allowed IRL things to get in the way. This year I let IRL things slip in order to make IFCOMP. I’m glad I did because entering creatively re-energised me. I should’ve committed earlier so that I had more time to polish the game. The mainloop that controls the game pacing wasn’t written until the day before submission deadline. me.punish(): You may commence with the flagellation… hahaha actually no, really not my thing.

I considered not entering but decided that I NEEDED to. It’s been a rough several years and I’ve been creatively out of touch. My self-esteem needed to get an “achieve point” even if that was having participated into last place.

I suck at editing. No matter how many times I read and re-read, mistakes always slip through. I’ve put huge effort into improving but I’m not there yet. I’ll try to collab to get more testers and people with editing skill to help me; but I know collab will increase the lead-in time before I need to commit. I didn’t edit out all the universe specific jargon that added little to the game. Simu-sleeping, holosplays... ugh. Yeah, they paint the picture of the TEC universe but in the nugget sized TEC game they were distractions.

I intentionally aimed TEC towards the strengths of click-fics to give the pacing I wanted. TEC as a parser game would’ve been very different.

Thanks again to the reviewers for their feedback. I tried to personally thank you all, but it became too much to track.

The post-comp release of TEC will also be put into the Android Play Store. You’ll see me back next year and not necessarily with a story set in TEC universe. As much as I’d like to try enter more IntFic competitions, I still have IRL concerns. Whaddup PhD!

Play The Entropy Cage in your browser. Playtimes are about 15 minutes.


My first Android App: FantaGen

UPDATE: FantaGen has added many more generators since its first release. Some fun, some serious and all very expressive.

I made FantaGen - a fantasy name generator to experiment with exploring cultural spaces with random generation. There are other generators so I aim for FantaGen to stand apart from the competition by being more comprehensive and more expressive.

You can get FantaGen from the Play Store

These types of generators are good for a bit of harmless fun but they do have a serious side to them. You can use the generator to help break some writer's block.

There are two cultures that have strange names: Simptee and Star Spirits. These were based on a simpler generative name system from a now abandoned interactive fiction project. It made sense in that story to have characters with names that weren't always the same. I thought the names were kinda cool so into FantaGen they go. Code recycling is good.

There are tons of fun image-based generators doing the rounds at the moment. These usually take the form of having the reader build up a name by looking up alternatives based on letters in their own name or their birth month. While these are fun for a single lookup, they don't give much variety for doing 10 random names at a time. My own feeling of these is that 26x26 alternatives is simply not rich enough when the user can see ten items at a time and refresh every half second. Significant extension to the generator is needed to add enough variety to be interesting.

I'm particularly proud of Fairy Names and Star Spirits. Fairy names uses both vocabulary words and syntax variety to create fun diversity. When I can picture the character that goes with the name then I think the effect is good. The Star Spirits mix both words and syllable combinations to represent their angelic like culture. The syllabary is fairly restricted to match how I image their angelic language to be so the word-based titles help to create the variety.

The Roman name generator combines a syllabary with some real Roman names based on research. The syllable based names are most likely anachronistic nonsense. Though it would take much more work to do a historically accurate Roman name generator given how complex their naming patterns are. In particularly I don't handle the gender very well at all: Claudius / Claudia, Julius / Julia. I would like to do more name generators based on real cultures since that ties into my semantic web interests.

Speaking of interests; this project also represents an interest I have in generative creativity. I want to be doing actual research into generative graphic design tools once my PhD is complete.

FantaGen is free and always will be. I have plans to continue extending FantaGen. As the list of generators grows I can see some ripe experimentation in how to navigate that space to keep things fun. I'm open to suggestions for new generators too.