The Drax Files Radio Hour interviews: Emily Short

radio-hourEpisode #23 of  The Drax Files Radio Hour was posted on Friday June 13th. With the “live” podcasts currently on hiatus until August 2014, this is the second of a series of more in-depth interviews with people from across the metaverse and beyond.

As usual, and as well as being available on the show’s website and on Stitcher, episode #23 is also on YouTube, and embedded at the end of this article.

The featured interview with this show is with none other than interactive fiction writer, narrative design consultant, co-founder of Little Text People, co-developer of Inform 7, the interactive fiction system, co-developer of Versu – I could go on and on, such is my admiration for her – Emily Short!

Given the above, you might be able to guess that this is an interview I’ve been looking forward to, and while time wasn’t the best, I tried to assist Drax in getting ready for it (although even then, some of the planning went out the window as we were overtaken by events!), so my thanks to Drax for the shout-out at the start of the show,

Emily Short on the IF panel, PAX East, 2010
Emily Short on the IF panel, PAX East, 2010

The interview, which commences at the 3:44 mark, is extremely wide-ranging, covering topics such as the creation of Little Text People, the time Emily and her LTP colleague, Richard Evans spent at Linden Lab, the nurturing of Versu, Emily’s own background and how she came to be interested in interactive fiction (IF) via the work of games design pioneer Scott Adams (not to be confused with the creator of Dilbert!) and moving forward from there.

Since the announcement that Versu – albeit is a slightly different Versu to the one initially marketed by the Lab – would be able to continue under its own banner, there have been musings as to the deal struck between Linden Lab and the Versu team. Had the IP been fully released by the Lab? Had an agreement on revenue sharing been achieved? Were there other strings attached?

Obviously, such questions may not be the easiest to answer; commercial arrangements between companies tend to be saddled with NDAs and the like, and the Versu / Linden Lab arrangement is certainly one of those. As such Emily has to be circumspect when answering such questions. However, she does indicate that there may potential for some of the titles from the “app version” of Versu to reappear, such as the Office Politics titles by Deirdra Kiai. Whether these will be direct ports or will see anything added to them, should it come to pass, remains to be seen.

The Office Politics titles, by Deirdra Kiai, were written for the original Versu app, and might appear with the new Versu in the future
The Office Politics titles, by Deirdra Kiai, were written for the original Versu app, and which might appear with the new Versu in the future

It’s important to note that the Versu we see with Blood & Laurels is somewhat different from the Versu which first appeared under the Lab’s banner. As Emily notes, the “first” Versu was more an app into which IF games could be plugged. Versu as we see it now is geared more towards developing self-contained titles – as Blood & Laurels is, and just as Bramble House will be. Packaging titles in this way offers the ability to build much more involved games – as has been noted, Blood & Laurels has some 240,000 words of interactive content, only 7% of which is liable to be encountered in a single play.

Author and Linden Jake Forbes (via Amazon)
Author and Linden Jake Forbes (via Amazon)

With the original Versu, much was made of the potential for people to create their own IF games for use on the platform. Whether this is still the case is unclear. The system itself would apparently need more work to support this, and the agreement with the Lab may limit what can be achieved in this area. Currently, story development remains confined to the Versu team and select other authors such as Bramble House’s Jake T. Forbes (himself a Linden as well as an author in his own right) and, possibly as noted, Deirdra Kiai.

An interesting aspect of Versu’s modularity is that it needn’t necessarily be limited to a text-based front-end. but could be embedded into something else or skinned by an alternative front-end. This means it could, for example, potentially be used in other game types or in business training or in education. These latter areas were somewhat upon in May 2013, when Versu co-creator Richard Evans presented his paper Versu: A Simulationist Interactive Drama, at the Games and Media Event at the Imperial College London, which prompted Douglas Heaven to write AI makes social game characters all too human for New Scientist Online, and which I wrote about at the time.

Whether this flexibility with the Versu components means it might see use in support of better AI-driven NPCs within Second Life, as many have speculated in the past, remains to be seen. This is another area Emily is not in a position to comment upon – which shouldn’t necessarily be taken to mean something is being worked on.

Another interesting aspect with Versu is the potential for it to be used in a multi-player format. While there are no plans for it to be used in this way at present, Emily offers some intriguing speculation on the matter:

The Versu engine is capable, under the hood, of doing multi-player as well as AI characters. And something that we talked about a long time ago, in the early days of the project … you would be able to play in the multi-player, and you would actually be able to add new content to the story. So if you got to the point where you were playing with somebody and you wanted to say something that wasn’t already coded into that scenario, you would actually be able to, right at that moment, write a new piece of content…

It’ll be interesting to see if this does come to pass down the road, as the team hopefully develop the resources they need to enhance and develop Versu, and as opportunities of perhaps working with third parties arises.

There is so much more to this interview than can be covered here. Where AI may go in the future; cautionary notes on how governments or private organisations might employ AI technologies alongside the huge amounts of data (social and otherwise) we’re allowing to be accrued on ourselves; caveats about tests used to determine whether or not the conditions of the Turing Test really have been met; have been met; even dreams of holodeck-style IF are explored!

All of which makes this a fascinating conversation, one well worth taking the time to sit down and listen to, whether or not you’re directly interest in interactive fiction (and you likely will be by the end of it!).

congrats to Drax on his Best Machinima award at the New Media Film Festival