Versu Continues The Evolution Of The Text Adventure

Last week’s Drax Files Radio Hour featured an excellent interview with Emily Short. The interview starts with discussion of an adventure of its very own, the fall and rise of Versu as our hero or heroine finds themselves stuck in a cave with exists, north, south, east and west all seeming to be blocked and you have the feeling that you are likely to be eaten by a Grue.

However, like in all good text adventures, if you know the right text you find a torch, which you can turn on and so it turned out in this adventure as Versu returned, under new terms and conditions, but interactive fiction app Versu is very much back from the dead.

Draxtor Despres, playing the role of ace interviewer asks Emily about the purpose of interactive fiction and Emily explains how for her it all began with Scott Adams text adventures. Emily also talks of software houses such as Melbourne House and Magnetic Scrolls, both of which I’m familiar with.

Melbourne House made big noises on the Sinclair Spectrum back in the 80’s and I fondly remember Sherlock, based of course on Sherlock Holmes and with a review from Crash magazine that said :

A subset of English, Inglish, first seen in The Hobbit, is used to communicate with the program which utilises a large vocabulary of 800 words. Each sentence must have a verb and there are a few simple, and mostly obvious, rules governing the use of adverbs and adjectives. Several actions or sentences can be linked in a manner which allows many different permutations. ANIMTALK is another strong feature, which allows you, Sherlock Holmes, to instruct the other characters what you would like them to do — but each character remains independent and can refuse to cooperate. Where this form of conversation proves most useful is when discussing the case with Watson and Lestrade, an Inspector from Scotland Yard. You can pick their brains generally or direct their thoughts to a particular item or incident.

Time passes as in real life when in a cab or train which can be profitably used conversing with Watson or examining objects. Of course, being an impatient reviewer I just WAITed … This method of accelerating the passage of time can be disorientating since other characters in the adventure do not stop carrying out their actions. Each independent character will act in a manner befitting his/her personality and will vary each time you play Sherlock. The literature even suggests a crass approach to a suspect or witness may not elicit a response.

Now where this gets interesting is that Versu has been hailed as being wonderful because of the advanced artificial intelligence of the engine, we can see how long people have been trying to make leaps and bounds in this area because Sherlock was released in 1984 and at the time was pretty damn impressive.

Magnetic Scrolls released the excellent The Pawn, I still have the novella that came with this game. The Crash review of the game highlights more advances with text style adventures :

Similarly, the rather more complicated area of picking up items in a crowded location allows the likes of GET ALL FROM THE SCHOOL BAG EXCEPT THE ERASER or GET ALL EXCEPT THE CASES BUT NOT THE VIOLIN CASE which if you follow the logic, actually means you will get the violin case along with all the objects except the other cases! More impressive still, the instructions weigh in with KILL THE MAN EATING SHREW WITH THE CONTENTS OF THE VIOLIN CASE (a sentence which is even ambiguous in plain English!) AND REMOVE THE SHREW’S TAIL, an example of possessive construction I can’t remember seeing before in an adventure (SYMB SHIFT and 7 brings up the raised apostrophe). AND, THEN, punctuation and IT are catered for as well but rounding off the vocabulary with another impressive feature is the intelligent way the program deals with input as when it asks a question to clarify the player’s aims. For example, when dropping a hat the program might wonder which one should you be carrying two. Many programs inquire ‘Which hat?’ or ‘Which one?’, but this program not only is more specific with the query (say, ‘Which hat, the small hat or the spotted hat?’) but also allows the player to just quickly type in which hat without the need to repeat the initial input. Friendly indeed, mighty friendly.

So we can see that computer text adventures were trying to stretch the boundaries of artificial intelligence in characters back in the 80’s. The text adventure mostly evolved into the graphic adventure on computers, but it didn’t quite die. Inform, which Emily Short was involved with bravely fought the good fight for the beauty of text and now Versu shows the potential to take it to new levels. In the interview Emily explains some of the power of text, how you can do more with words to describe reactions and emotions, these are difficult concepts to fully portray in a graphic adventure.

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Versu Gets A Second Life

Oh come on, someone was always going to use that headline! Back in February, not long after Ebbe Altberg arrived, Linden Lab announced :

After careful consideration, Linden Lab has decided to cease development and support for dio, Versu, and Creatorverse. We’re grateful for those who took the time to experiment with these products in their early days, but ultimately we have determined that due to a number of factors, we and our customers will be best served by focusing our efforts on continuing to provide exceptional service and compelling new experiences for the users of our other products.

I was somewhat aghast at this as I liked the look of  interactive fiction app Versu in particular, although the long awaited Android release was still being long awaited. Versu developer and author Emily Short hoped to be able to negotiate a deal with Linden Lab to buy the IP and codebase, but in March came the news that Linden Lab had said a firm no :

So for those who were curious, Linden has now given me a definite no about selling me the codebase and IP. – Emily Short

I was not alone in being disappointed about this news and the story was picked up by Gamasutra who interviewed Emily Short. Now it should definitely be noted that unlike me, Emily was very dignified and professional about the closure of Versu and she remained very grateful to Linden Lab, saying :

I remain hugely grateful to Rod Humble and to Linden for picking us up when they did, and for giving us the run they gave us.

The disappointment of course remained and one of the most disappointing aspects of this affair was that Emily had a new Versu title entitled “Blood and Laurels” on the verge of release, three days from release to be precise. As Emily had penned this title whilst employed by Linden Lab, not only was Versu gone, but so was her Blood And Laurels story as Linden Lab, not Emily, owned the IP to that title. There was also confusion amongst some as to why Linden Lab had decided to leave a title with such huge potential gathering dust on a shelf. This was a title after all about which a former Linden posted on Emily’s blog :

The Versu underpinnings are genuinely revolutionary; my jaw dropped in the meeting where you explained how the engine works.

Part of the reason some would speculate, is that interactive fiction is not known for being a huge money spinner, although it does appear to be a growing market. However that seemed to be that and we all went about our merry business, until now that is. Inara Pey has discovered that Versu is back.

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Versu’s Emily Short Extends Gratitude To Rod Humble And Linden Lab

New World Notes has recently published a couple of articles about Linden Lab’s decision to end Versu. The first by Iris Ophelia entitled Versu’s Epilogue: How an Interactive Fiction Pioneer’s 15 Year Project Ended Up in Limbo at Linden Lab laments the loss of the title. This is a very good read and I agree with much of what Iris has to say.

The second deals with feedback to that article, Limbo Status of Emily Short’s Long-in-Development Interactive Fiction Project at Linden Lab Goes Viral and highlights a tweet from Gamastura’s Leigh Alexander:


From there we can go to Gamasutra itself and find an article by Chritsian Nutt : The end of Versu: Emily Short looks back. This article includes commentary from Emily Short and highlights points Emily has made on her own blog, Emily is extremely grateful to Rod Humble and Linden Lab for supporting Versu in the first place. I’ve seen Emily make this point more than once, if it wasn’t for Linden Lab’s support, Versu would not have reached the stage it did.

This is a point that could easily be lost amidst all the disappointment over how things turned out but it remains a very important point. Emily is quoted in the gamasutra article as saying :

I want to stress this because some of the people I’ve talked to about the closure of Versu don’t seem to understand this point: I remain hugely grateful to Rod Humble and to Linden for picking us up when they did, and for giving us the run they gave us. There are so few opportunities to do this kind of research within existing companies, and if Richard Evans and I had taken venture capital, we would have had to spend a lot more of our time trying to learn to run a business and a lot less writing stories and code.

And that doesn’t begin to count the other resources besides financial support that Linden put at our disposal, such as a hugely devoted and enthusiastic QA team, or the opportunity to work with other experienced interactive-story authors like Deirdra Kiai and Jake Forbes. Both of them not only wrote content but contributed useful thinking about how to develop the system as a whole.

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Linden Lab Followed The Rule Rather Than The Exception With Versu

Although many of us are disappointed with Linden Lab’s refusal to sell the IP and codebase of Versu to Emily Short it should be pointed out that Linden Lab are following a well trodden path. When titles shut down there is often a clamour for it to be saved or for the code to be made Open Source but this does not happen very often. There is no Open Source version of Cloud Party for example, it just vanished without much of a trace.

When City Of Heroes closed down there were campaigns to keep it alive and calls for it to be open sourced, but alas those calls fell on deaf ears. However Open Sourcing a project isn’t as straight forward as some may think, as Shava Suntzu points out in the comments of a previous post of mine about Versu :

There are lots of reasons applications can’t be open sourced. They may include proprietary libraries, or work by people who won’t release rights.

On top of this Linden Lab most definitely spent money on Versu, as Emily herself explained :

To be clear, Versu benefitted a lot from Linden’s early support, and I’m grateful for that. Without external support, what we would have now is not a well-developed open source project; what we would have is nothing in particular, because I would have needed to get a job doing something else.

Emily was of course a paid employee of Linden Lab so it’s not as if Linden Lab have taken her work away without recompense. In situations like this it’s all too easy to paint the company as the baddie … much too easy and whereas it does seem silly to spend money on a project and then shelve it when others are willing to take it off a company’s hands, this is generally the norm, rather than the exception.

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Linden Lab TOS Issues Should Be Rectified Sooner Rather Than Later In Light Of Versu Decision

First of all there are some key differences between The Second Life TOS change and what has happened to Versu. The most glaringly obvious apparently being that Linden Lab are not asking Second Life content creators to give up their intellectual property rights and they are not asking for an exclusive license.

Emily Short who was a main developer of Versu was employed by Linden Lab and would have known the details of providing her content to Linden Lab. Emily appears to have lost control of her own content in the process but that is not something untoward if the terms of the contract stated this was the case.

Terms are important and this is why Second Life content creators are not happy about the TOS change by Linden Lab. One particular cause of concern for Second Life content creators has been :

Except as otherwise described in any Additional Terms (such as a contest’s official rules) which will govern the submission of your User Content, you hereby grant to Linden Lab, and you agree to grant to Linden Lab, the non-exclusive, unrestricted, unconditional, unlimited, worldwide, irrevocable, perpetual, and cost-free right and license to use, copy, record, distribute, reproduce, disclose, sell, re-sell, sublicense (through multiple levels), modify, display, publicly perform, transmit, publish, broadcast, translate, make derivative works of, and otherwise exploit in any manner whatsoever, all or any portion of your User Content (and derivative works thereof), for any purpose whatsoever in all formats, on or through any media, software, formula, or medium now known or hereafter developed, and with any technology or devices now known or hereafter developed, and to advertise, market, and promote the same. 

Whereas Second Life content creators do not give up their intellectual property rights, they give up a hell of a lot more than they previously had to in other areas. The old TOS for this part read :

You agree that by uploading, publishing, or submitting any Content to or through the Servers, Websites, or other areas of the Service, you hereby automatically grant Linden Lab a non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, sublicenseable, and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the Content solely for the purposes of providing and promoting the Service.

That’s a far more friendly reading TOS than the new one. There has been some speculation that the reason for the TOS change was due to SL Go from Onlive. The arguments goes that Linden Lab need to allow Onlive to use Second Life content and therefore the TOS had to be changed to allow this service to run.

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