One reason I put off this series of essays is that I thought I would die from information overload trying to summarize the work of Emily Short. Hopefully this will help others become familiar with the extensive portfolio and community service of this author.
Emily Short is the most productive author of high-quality works that the IF world has seen. She began writing on the IF forums in 2000, releasing a small proof-of-concept game called Not Made With Hands involving physical qualities such as light, hardness, and flammability. While not a full game, it demonstrated her early interest in physical simulation.
She rose to early prominence with the release that same year of Galatea, a game featuring a single, richly detailed NPC. Since that time, she has released a steady stream of award-winning work, starting with amateur IF work and increasingly in the world of commercial games and artificial intelligence.
Outside of her games, Emily Short is known for her craft writing and game criticism. In the past, she has been the Chief Editor of the IF theory book, reviewed hundreds of competition games, written dozens of blog posts about IF, organized several mini IF Comps and game jams, and given talks around the world about games writing and artificial intelligence.
She has developed many of the most-used Inform extensions, and was the co-creator of Inform 7, writing all or almost all of the examples games used in the Inform 7 IDE. Her commitment to open source code has led to numerous authors (including myself) to start their first games by copying the code of one of her open games (for me, it was Glass).
Her commercial work includes developing a complex new language called Versu, writing several one-off games for special events, participating in Where the Water Tastes Like Wine and several Failbetter games, working in the Lifeline Universe and developing an interactive novel for Choice of Games.
To get an idea of the scope of Short’s work, just note that the games I did not pick for this list have between them at least 3 XYZZY awards and 22 more nominations (including 4 for Best Game).
Galatea contains one of the richest NPCs developed in all of gaming. In this game, you are an art critic at a museum exhibition on artificial intelligence. Galatea is a construct who claims to be sentient, which you can determine. The game has 70 endings, and involves a complex system of values including Galatea’s physical position, the topics you’ve already discussed, mood, and the level of romantic interest between you and her.
The complexity of Galatea has proven difficult to imitate; very few have even tried to create an NPC as rich (examples of such tries include Redemption by Kathleen Fischer and Mirror and Queen by Chandler Groover, or the complex NPC Progue in Blue Lacuna). The difficulty in creating such a game is two-fold: not only is clever coding required, you also must write hundreds of responses. This can be ameliorated by crowd-sourcing (see Alabaster) but the fact remains that Galatea has never really been matched.
Released in the same year as Galatea, Metamorphoses took 2nd place in IFComp. This game involves a physical simulation of texture, flammability, and size. The player must progress through a surreal Myst-like environment, making use of various property-altering machines to find freedom.
Galatea and Metamorphoses together were pieces or prototypes of a hypothetical larger game that Emily Short wished to produce, one that could include both intelligent NPCs and physical simulation. When she later created such a game, Counterfeit Monkey, it became the number one game on the IFDB top 100.
This was Short’s first XYZZY winner. The game sets you as a roguish member of a noble household who returns to his abandoned childish home. This game is set in a complex alternate history where certain members of French nobility had the magical ability to ‘link’ things. This world has been further explored in several of Short’s games, including Damnatio Memoriae and First Draft of the Revolution.
Like Metamorphoses, this game centers on physical simulation. Players can link different items to each other so they share physical properties such as color, density, openness, animation, and so on. The game also simulates cooking with various recipes.
This is a large an complex game. Like Galatea, a game of this richness requires creating a great deal of content, an act that is difficult to match. It is easily comparable to Infocom’s works.
Many authors in the first decade of the 2000’s worked on tutorial games to help introduce new players to the genre, such as Plotkin’s Dreamhold and Reed’s Blue Lacuna.
Short’s entry in this genre is Bronze, a game that is popular for IF players to start out with. This game is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast using sound-based magic. The player finds a variety of bells, each of which has a specific musical purpose.
Like many of Short’s other games, Bronze features ambiguous morality. The beast is shown with all of his flaws, and the player is not required to show affection or disinterest. Endings are not happy or sad. This complex emotional tapestry is common in Short’s work.
This was Short’s winning IFComp entry, and partially meant to show off the new Inform 7 location. As usual with Short, this game contains an enormous amount of content. One of the most unusual features of Floatpoint is the use of video-recording fruit. There is post-production video editing technology that allows you to convert these recordings into compressed formats, including a scientific summary and a social summary.
Most of the game revolves around exploring a space colony of genetically altered humans who are in dispute with non-genetically altered humans. You are to explore and discover the customs of the people, reading periodic emails you receive, to decide how to symbolically settle the relationship of the two main factions.
I mentioned before the difficulty in creating a conversational game like Galatea. This game is an attempt to overcome that difficulty by crowd-sourcing.
It is a retelling of Snow White, again featuring Short’s classic moral ambiguity. You are the huntsman, having a conversation with Snow White. It uses a combination of keywords and suggested topics.
It was built using a framework that potential authors could use to submit code. In the beta versions, reaching an end to a conversational thread would prompt you to write your own text and describe how it fits into the rest of the game. The game would save that information and allow you to e-mail it to short, who polished the game through 30 different versions. It is by far the most popular game on IFDB from 2009.
First Draft of the Revolution (2012)
By 2012, much of the thrust of the parser community had gone, and everyone was exploring new formats. Emily Short partnered with Liza Daly and the technology of inkle to create the hyperlink game First Draft of the Revolution.
Set in the same world as the earlier Savoir-Faire, it has you rewriting letters from members of the magic-using French nobility. Clinking on links allows you to rewrite passages. Chris Klimas, creator of Twine, has cited this game as inspiration for the click-replacement mechanic of Twine that came to be a prominent feature.
Counterfeit Monkey (2012)
This game won Emily Short her second XYZZY Best Game award, and it currently sits on top of the IFDB Top 100 rating aggregator.
This game combines elements of everything Short had done before, including NPCs with complex conversations; a large, explorable city; a magical-ish means of manipulating physical properties; numerous endings and moral choice; procedurally generated content; and manipulation of text.
You play as a fusion of Alex and Andra, one providing the actions and the other providing the narrations. You exist in a world where objects and concepts can be manipulated by means of the words that refer to them. One can remove an ‘e’ from a tube to get a tub, for instance.
The game is large, and provides an enormous variety of actions for you to complete, as the game has a big dictionary of objects and any word-changing action you take will check the dictionary for an appropriate response. This means that literally every possible response is coded, which in some ways is the unfulfilled promise of most parser games, here made true.
The Mary Jane of Tomorrow (2016)
In between her commercial work, Short released a short game in 2016 that was written as a prize for the IFComp 2015 winner Brain Guzzlers from Beyond.
This game uses procedurally generated text from a corpus. You, the player, are attempting to teach a robot to be like your friend Mary Jane. You can feed the robot new knowledge, which affects its speech patterns, but you run the risk of overwriting earlier speech patterns, requiring you to keep trying new combinations and orders of instruction.
This game represents a significant achievement in procedural generation, and is instructive for anyone interested in this area.
Short’s work is in stark contrast to Plotkin’s and Cadre’s. Whereas those authors tend to have specific experiences and interactions that they want the player to experience, Short’s work centers on allowing players to make personalized choices between options with no clear right answer.
This requires writing numerous endings, which is a hallmark of Short games. From the 70 endings of Galatea to the critical decision moment near the end of Counterfeit Monkey, Short’s games allow the player to create their own path.
Another emphasis is simulation of complex real-life systems. This includes physical simulation and conversation. In conversation alone, Short has explored and created half a dozen different systems, including the menu-choice hybrids of Best of Three and Pytho’s Mask, the suggested topics of Counterfeit Monkey, the hybrid system in Alabaster, etc.
In terms of topics, her games are somewhat phlegmatic (in contrast to Plotkin’s melancholy games and Cadre’s sanguine works). They feature cool, collected protagonists, often in a magical or fantasy setting, and generally involved in complex and ambiguous or oppressive relationships with a loved one or society.
Her current work on artificial intelligence (with other members of the IF community) is a natural extension of her earlier work in trying to create a realistic simulation of life.
Emily Short’s influence on the IF world is huge. With her combined experience in writing, criticism, and tool creation, it is fair to say that she is the most influential figure in interactive fiction.