Samsara is a game written for StoryNexus, and the first place winner of Failbetter’s recurring “World of the Season” competition. (The second and third place were taken by Zero Summer, which appears to be an apocalyptic western of sorts [I have yet to play it]; and Evolve, a Spore-like story game that starts you off as a one-celled creature.)
For those not familiar with StoryNexus, it has set of mechanics that are more streamlined than Fallen London (fka Echo Bazaar) but with more persistent elements than Night Circus: there’s no map or travel paradigm built in, but the player has an inventory and stats, a deck of randomized cards to draw from (like FL’s Opportunity deck, or the sole deck in Night Circus), and a sequence of “pinned cards”, which represent quests currently in-progress. Cards look like this:
To play, you select a card — either one of those dealt from the randomized deck, or one of the pinned ones — and read a storylet setting up a situation; you can then try to do something about that situation (and often you have several options for how) or decide to put the card back and look at another instead. For instance:
(The imagery from these cards appears to belong to a common stock of StoryNexus images, though I’ve seen them rendered in other colors as well for other games.)
Success or failure in these various storylets depends on your stats and inventory, but even failure at a particular challenge will raise your stats in that area, so that you’re more likely to succeed if you try again. This is a system that can lend itself to fairly grinding content, and certainly Fallen London in its early days featured a sometimes-oppressive amount of grind. But that’s by no means a required feature, and some pieces (including Samsara) offer enough opportunities all the way along that it’s not necessary to redo and redo the same actions in an attempt to bulk stats out.
Another consequence of the mechanic is that it tends to be very much up to the player what narrative line she wants to pursue, and often playing a StoryNexus game feels like it’s more about texture than about plot. Moreover, because the stories are told so incrementally and the words themselves are the main reward for playing, each individual bit of text has to work very well on its own. The premium on well-turned sentences is higher in this medium than in almost any other kind of interactive narrative I know. Even parser IF is more forgiving.
Samsara deals gracefully with these challenges. Set in 1757 Bengal, Samsara casts you as a court magician with the ability to wander through the dreams of others, gathering information and planting ideas, choosing sides and reporting back as appropriate. The player can move back and forth between the waking and the dream states, depending on what she needs to accomplish.
This is a scheme that suits the StoryNexus platform well: the scraps of dreams are visionary and evocative enough to be effective in short prose snippets, while the political context naturally provides multiple quest lines to pursue and allegiances to explore. It’s also exactly the flavor of thing I love: historical fantasy with elements of romance, mysticism and intrigue, embedded in an unusual and beautifully envisioned setting.
Perhaps my growing familiarity with the system is at play here, but I was also impressed by how quickly Samsara gets its story off the ground. The opening phases of StoryNexus/quality-based narrative pieces are typically, in my experience, the rockiest aspect of the whole experience, because there is so much to teach about how the system will work, and because establishing character, setting, and motive within such brief snippets of prose can be challenging. Several pieces open with a long, linear introduction that doesn’t convey what the rest of the experience is going to be like, or else offer the player a bewildering array of options too soon. By contrast, Samsara establishes its core issues exceptionally quickly, introducing the idea of dream travel as well as the conflicts between local rulers, French and British army and trading interests, and competing religions and castes, all within a few short moves.
Like most pieces in this system, Samsara has an action meter and only allows playing so many turns at a time. On this scheme the current content lasts a day to a day and a half, ending on a cliffhanger; but there’s a promise of more to come, and I look forward to it.