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The Prompt in Interactive Fiction and AI Art | 2132

Cover of episode 2123 of 301 permanently moved podcast.

S04E32

Sketching out some ideas around the relation between the shared indistinguishable surface of interactive fiction games and using GAN’s to create art. What comes out when I put this thing in? 

Full Show Notes: https://www.thejaymo.net/2021/08/28/301-2132-the-prompt-in-interactive-fiction-and-ai-art/

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The Prompt in Interactive Fiction and AI Art

One of my earliest computing memories is the arrival of a strange beige box with keyboard. An BBC Acorn.

My Mum was a teacher and had borrowed it from her school for half term. I can’t remember which Uncle came round and showed me how to use its magics. Insert the 5 ¼” floppy, type some strange summoning incantations written on a piece of paper. Hear the clicks and wurrs from the disk drive and … a world would arrive.

Go north, Go west. Pick up Gold Bar, Look At Room, Open Door. 

I have no clue how old I was. Well before I got to use an RM window box machine at my primary school definitely.

First contact with the command line was also first contact with Interactive Fiction. I mentioned IF last year in the episode ‘Rooms As UX Metaphor’ and since then I’ve continued to read around the subject. The excellent podcast Game Studies Study Buddies recently did an episode on Mary Ann Buckles’ 1985 dissertation ‘Interactive Fiction: The Computer Storygame “Adventure.”’ 

Inspired, I’m finally reading Nick Montfort’s 2005 book: ‘Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction’.

I have thoughts, let’s sketch them out.

As mentioned back in Episode 21-29 I’ve also been playing with AI image generation. Most recently CLIP Guided Diffusion and CLIPIT Pixel Draw. If you follow me on Twitter you might have seen some of the results I posted.

“The Forest City At Night” – CLIPIT PIXEL DRAW 500 Iterations

The more I use these tools, the more I experience a little of what K Allado-McDowell described in conversation with Mat and Holly on interdependence.fm last year. When they were talking about their experience of co-writing their book Pharmako AI with GTP-3. To work with a neural net and its outputs is like spelunking or steering a boat under its own power. Like walking through dark hallways or moving through symbolic space.

You put in a prompt and see what unfolds.

This of course is similar to engaging with interactive fiction. In both cases one is embedded within a system that has a model of the world. 

In the case of interacting with AI, outputs from a literal trained model. With interactive fiction, a constructed model by an author. With a structure, filled with records, objects, lists and associated procedures, methods, and functions.

Again, both of these worlds are accessed and interacted with at the command line. 

Can you see where I’m going here? A UX experience that rhymes.

Buckles wrote in 1985 that:

One of the fascinating aspects of Adventure is that the reader must figure out how the game and narrative works, i.e.

1. How to communicate with the computer/narrator
2. How to make moves

Interactive Fiction: The Computer Storygame “Adventure” by Mary Ann Buckles

As scholarly work developed, different terms to describe the person using Interactive Fiction programs emerged. Buckles’ Reader was first out the gate, but Operator, Player and User were all tried. In Twisty Little Passages Montfort settles on ‘Interactor’. I like it too. A word as good as any to also describe the experience of using machine learning tools to create.

Once one has learnt to communicate with the machine, step 2 is to learn ‘How to make moves’.

The 2011 book, ‘IF Theory Reader‘ contains a fascinating essay by Andrew Plotkin called ​​Characterizing, If Not Defining, Interactive Fiction. It is about ‘The Interface’ of IF.
The command line or parser is so tightly bound with the Interactor and the game world that they are indistinguishable. The surface of the world.

Plotkin comes up with a working definition of IF as:

A game that is controlled by textual input, understood as its natural-language meaning (to some degree), and that provides a simulated game world, which behaves according to natural rules (to some degree). 

Characterizing, If Not Defining, Interactive Fiction — Andrew Plotkin – IF THEORY READER

Anyone who has worked with CLIP should immediately recognise something of their experience in that quote too.

The most important part of creating any work with AI is ‘The Prompt’. What comes out when I put this thing in? 

The summoning words that set the world in motion. Some generative artists keep their best prompts to themselves. Over on the blog AI Weirdness, Janelle Shane recently showed examples of CLIP works generated in the style of Carmine Nottyors. An artist that doesn’t exist, yet as a prompt, produces striking images. 

Prompt exploration is very much like the way an Interactor explores the literal and figurative grammars of a IF world.

Again as Buckles wrote in 1985:

“The reader’s interaction with the story extends to conversing with the narrator on a prim­itive level. To explore the cave and find the treasures, the reader must learn how to use its “hands and eyes …. The reader must learn how the author programmed the narrator to “think” and what kind of language the narrator understands.”

Interactive Fiction: The Computer Storygame “Adventure” by Mary Ann Buckles

Mat Dryhurst kindly sent me over the Promptist Manifesto by Johanezzz which is not currently on clearnet, but there is a line in there that struck me “concentrated on creating the potential for each artist to participate in the making of art.” It is the participation that’s important here, returning Plotkin it’s about using prompts to explore what is possible. 

At the surface of both AI models and IF world models is the command line. And as the Promptist Manifesto says “THE PROMPT MUST ALWAYS BE YOURS”

As I said, this is just a first sketch of an idea. But I have a hunch that there may be a lot of useful work and concepts to be found in the last 35 years of Interactive Fiction writing.


The script above is the original script I wrote for the episode. It may differ from what ended up in the audio due to time constraints.

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About Author

Jay Springett is a Solarpunk, and consultant strategist, currently specialising in the distributed web, metaverse, and world running. He is currently writing his first public book: Land as Platform.

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