Zero Summer (Gordon Levine et al)

Zero Summer is the second place finisher in the seasonal StoryNexus competition, after Samsara. The setting is an apocalyptic western dated to 2026: Corpus Christi has become ground zero for an outbreak of monsters, and much of Texas has become essentially frontier territory again. And you’ve been clubbed on the head in a train robbery and forgotten everything, so that you are now the Man With No Name. Soon you fall in with people who offer to help you, and you begin to be embroiled in local plots.

There are several ways to go with this sort of setting. Happily (at least in my view), Zero Summer seems more interested in the society that might result from such a disaster, the sorts of people who would find themselves living in it, and how everyone gets on, than in dwelling on the monstrosities first thing. There’s a good establishing scene of creepiness, but it’s played with a lot of restraint, and then the player is sent out to get to meet people and be part of the life of the town.

The setting and the writing alike set Zero Summer apart from what I might call the StoryNexus house style — aspects that are not at all inherent in the system of StoryNexus, but that show up a lot, because a number of the existing works are written by Failbetter and then many of the others were written by people who liked Failbetter’s content and to some degree were inclined to emulate it. Fallen London, Samsara, Night Circus, Winterstrike, Cabinet Noir, The Silver Tree share a tendency towards artisanal virtuosity; towards luxury and violence, slashed silk and blossoming wounds; towards perfumed encounters with NPCs forgotten in the morning. If a story were a meal, the archetypical StoryNexus work would be a box of tiny, exquisitely intense bonbons — not chocolates, but Turkish delight, crystalized violets, spun-sugar caskets of anise liqueur.

This is by no means a complaint. StoryNexus is hardly the only language or system with a house style. Twine’s house style tends towards stream-of-consciousness and highly personal narrative, perhaps thanks to Anna Anthropy’s championing of it as a tool for self-expressive game design, while ChoiceScript’s tends towards highly customizable protagonists with a lot of stats and minimal pre-defined characterization. There’s no reason that has to be the case. Twine and ChoiceScript have most of their feature set in common — just different ways to visualize those features, and different supporting cultures.

So I tend to think the use of a system is driven as much by the community of people who are already using it as by the technical affordances. If a new author doesn’t like what’s been written already, or is not on the same wavelength with the existing experts who could help her, she’s much much less likely to be drawn to using that system. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you get a sufficiently complex ecosystem that the house style starts to break down, and people are trying lots of new things, and tool becomes separate from genre. But it takes time, and examples, and variation.

Zero Summer takes StoryNexus a step in this direction. Zero Summer is not a box of sweets.

In Zero Summer, you’re a man who doesn’t know exactly what is going on. You do not have panache. You exist in a setting where panache is an unknown concept. You drink home-distilled “cornskunk” liquor and you’re grateful for it. There’s dirt under your fingernails and also most likely everywhere else. And this difference is manifest not only in the setting, but also in the structure, the characterization, the prose style.

Zero Summer is heavy on tutorial content: perhaps the wordiest StoryNexus game I’ve seen in the opening stages, with lots and lots of italicized advice text. Sometimes I felt a little overwhelmed by the sheer quantity, and it didn’t always feel artfully done. But then again, sometimes I welcomed how overt it was being about the system. It’s absolutely clear from the beginning that you’re going to have a main plot to pursue (non-optional) and some subplots (you get to pick among several), and it tells you how to access all those, and what progress will look like; so that you get rolling with a sense of how to drive the story on. There’s less of a sense of having to hunt about for wisps of plot than in FL.

Zero Summer is also structured (on average) around larger units than most SN games. Often an event does not consist of just a single storylet and a single choice, but developed conversations that last several cards in turn, sometimes fairly linear internally. As far as I can tell, this is because they’re using StoryNexus’ ability to assign “MUST” cards — storylets that the player is obligated to draw when certain stats are achieved — in order to present several storylets in a row without giving the player a chance to pick a new card. As a result, the feel of the narration is more continuous and closer to projects I’ve seen in Varytale, with its capacity for long, multi-choice storylets; the experience feels a little more conventionally literary.

At moments of real crisis, such as a fight with an important character, play can also become more tactical. I had one prolonged battle that I resoundingly lost, because the luck ran persistently against me; but though I was sorry about how it turned out, I felt both more invested in it and more accepting about its outcome because it was the result of many rolls, not just one.

Characters are sketched in swift, bold strokes during these extended scenes. Men and women alike are drawn in terms of their capacities and what they do around town, rather than their attractiveness. There’s Warren, the man who first offers you rescue; Padre, a hard-drinking priest who worships guns; Sermon on the Mount, the formidable woman who runs the Mission, who walks onto the scene with a fresh-killed deer over her shoulder. They all feel like semi-mythical figures, but their strength and inaccessibility is a large part of their allure.

I rapidly developed an interest, not just in the secrets of the setting (a common attraction in SN worlds), but in what I could do for these characters to become better friends with them, to find out what animated them, to earn their respect. The setting sharpens the thirst for personal connections. The creepiest thing about it is not so much the threat of monsters (seldom seen in the first batch of actions, anyhow), but the loneliness of the place, the fact that you are so obviously reliant on the meager civilization around you, and the way no one is in a great hurry to open up to you. You’re a stranger in a town that doesn’t really take to strangers. Friendship, being scarce, has value.

The prose is generally longer and less diamond-cut-precise than the best of Fallen London. Sometimes there are a few more adjectives than strictly necessary. There are some blemishes here and there: typos, misspellings, not numerous but present.

That’s not to say, though, that it’s badly written. The text of Zero Summer offers its own pleasures. It sets its jokes out gently for the reader to pick up or not as she likes. Of a religious statue: “The sculptor caught him in the middle of renouncing his worldly possessions, including his clothes.”

I have a few quibbles. Moving from one place to another in town is an important mechanic and opens up some additional options, but it’s not always easy to remember where in town new content is waiting for you, especially if you’ve been forced by an action refresh to put the game aside for a while. It’s easy to spend several actions bumbling about, looking for an interesting pinned card. Some of the grind is handled well, with opportunity cards that change interestingly as your stats improve, but there are other cards that keep turning up even after all of their branches have become “straightforward” and therefore they’re nearly useless at improving your skillset. Also, there aren’t really very many grind cards at a time, so you’re likely to be doing the same things over and over in order to increase your skills and unlock plot.

Finally, the more long-form structure made me repeatedly wish for something that the StoryNexus platform just doesn’t provide: the ability to go back and look at the content of a previous storylet. In the scenes where I was conversing with NPCs and had several choices in a row, I sometimes wished I could remind myself about something they’d said earlier. In Varytale, this would be an earlier portion of the same storylet; in inklewriter or conventional parser IF, it would just be scrollback; but in the StoryNexus system that text is already gone, vanished into ether even though it happened ten seconds ago in both real and fictional time.

(Also, for what it’s worth: I was planning to take this slow and review it in a couple of weeks, as I’ve got a lot else on the plate; but I was sufficiently drawn in by the story to buy a couple of paid action refreshes and see more sooner. So there’s that.)

The full story of Zero Summer isn’t complete, but more content is planned in coming months, and there’s already a substantial helping there.

12 thoughts on “Zero Summer (Gordon Levine et al)

  1. I think Twine inherently draws people into a confessional attitude–I don’t think the culture steered it so much as it got picked up by a culture that understood its strengths. There’s less shit in between emotions and the page, is what I mean–less code to tangle up the thoughts.

    I’m interested in storynexus, I played echo bazaar for a while. The grindyness got awful after some time but I love the card-based format, the freeform stats.

    • But why not the same for, say, inklewriter, in so far I’ve mostly seen a mix of more literary projects and social satire? There’s no visible code there at all, and the system is if anything even faster to start playing with than Twine, because there’s not even a download/install aspect; so it seems to have a similar potential for confessional.

      I suppose it’s possible that people are put off by the fact that it belongs to a company, or maybe it’s important that Twine allows hypertexty presentations rather than just having options at the end of the paragraph, or… I’m not sure.

      Not dismissing your observations, and I spent some time recently writing a sample piece with Twine myself, which I’ll post about later. But I’m really interested in all of these questions about how the affordances of the system, the tools developed to serve them, and the support community play in together to affect what gets written in that system.

      • I think the hypertexty presentation is important. (That particular sentence surely has too many links and may have other problems — it was a sentence from a draft of a read-only story that I copy-pasted as an example.) And I wonder if the presentation makes a difference — Inklewriter displays all the text continuously, Twine puts separate paragraphs on separate pages, that might make Twine more conducive to fragmentary narrative.

        For Choicescript vs. Twine, doesn’t Choicescript encourage stat-based PCs with the “show stats” option? That seems like it’s pretty much there out of the box in Choicescript and would take some scripting in Twine.

      • Hmm. Okay, possibly I’m underplaying the significance of the hypertext aspect. I would hardly try to claim that’s insignificant, from the reader perspective, whether the links are in-line or not.

        But — hm. Undum does hypertext aspects, and the Undum games I’ve seen are different again. (Because harder to code? Possibly. Undum certainly isn’t a very easy tool to use. Also, Undum games are less like one another. Because there was no one Undum game that everyone played first? Because the tool is hard? I’m not sure.)

        I suppose I feel like each of these tools sheds its light in one tiny area of the possible space of interactive narrative, and there are other big dark patches where no one has done much yet; and at the same time I feel like each tool has extensive further capabilities that aren’t yet much developed. Why? Does all that dark territory require still other tools that don’t yet exist? Am I imagining territory that isn’t actually there? Or is it a cultural thing, the fact that there’s not enough support or feedback or example or encouragement in those other spots?

        I may be projecting, as tool choice and format was originally cultural for me. I always wanted to write parser-based IF because I loved my Infocom and Scott Adams games as a kid. And then when I came to tool-selecting, I heard of Inform first, but I was also attracted to it by the wit and literacy of the designer’s manual, and by having liked the other games I saw written in it. And I was drawn to the community as a whole especially by the fact that it contained so many people who liked both STEM subjects and the humanities, and there was a breadth there that made me feel at home at a time when my graduate degree was pressing me to focus more and more narrowly, and I was surrounded by people who did not want to have a conversation about any intellectual topic other than, say, bronze age archaeology. (True example: on a dig I once mentioned to a friend reading a newspaper article about the discovery of new exoplanets. Her response was that she really didn’t care what might be out there. And I thought HOW CAN YOU NOT CARE? How is this discovery NOT a piece of the great endeavor to understand the universe, which is in some distant but genuine sense continuous with your own desire to find more Mycenean tomb sites? And then: …okay, well, at least my internet friends find this interesting.)

        I know, it’s not the late 90s any more and the IF community has changed; and also, what read to me as a comforting intellectual refuge might read to others as studded all over with markers of creepy academe-centric privilege.

      • Oh, definitely contingency and social factors are a big part of what determines the house style of different games! Just saying that the affordances are a bit different, too. For my personal anecdotage, the reason I’m involved in parser IF is that when I was 13 I went to computer camp with Andrew Plotkin, and 22 years later I saw a writeup of some of his games and said “Oh! So that’s what he’s been up to!” I was already interested in story and agency in games, but it would have been really easy for me to wind up in Ren.py or GameMaker or something if I’d received a push in a different direction. Then Inform 7 was the easiest tool to get into. (Also: Mac user.)

        Undum: I think it’s definitely that the tool is hard. When I tried it, it seemed that it would be about as easy for me to learn enough Javascript to build the whole thing from scratch. I think every Undum game I’ve seen has been by a professional game designer, so they’re going to bring their own style and interests to the tool. (Oh — there’s Sam Ashwell. Still, not a tabula rasa.)

        About the dark spaces and unexplored possibilities, it may be just that these tools are pretty new. There are still dark spaces and unexplored possibilities in Inform (look at Kerkerkruip), but the longer it’s been around the more people are pushing it in different directions. It might be interesting to look at chooseyourstory.com, which has been around a long time, and see if it’s got a house style or if the things people do with it have evolved.

      • The hypertext aspect is huge, to reiterate what people are saying–Undum is bullshit compared to Twine for ease of use, Inklewriter throws the options at the end, ChoiceScript is specifically about stat-tracking games–Twine is just so much more flexible and time-friendly and hand-crafted, and you can still get the functionality and complexity of other programs if you want by throwing in some Javascript–but you don’t have to start at that level of complexity. It scales with the user.

  2. I really enjoyed Zero Summer. It’s one of my favourites of the Story Nexus games, and I hope more will be added to it later, though I’m not sure I’ll remember to go back and I doubt I’ll be notified if the story is updated, so I dunno. But I really liked it. I also ran into the problem you did where I sometimes spent a lot of actions just wandering around trying to figure out what to do, and then it turned out that my stats weren’t high enough to unlock the next content, and so I had to grind some more before wandering around to all different locations to find out what to do next. Also, if I were to play it again, on day 2, I’d be more strategic about jub V gnyx gb ng gur qvaare cnegl naq va jung beqre. Nf vg jnf, V fgnegrq frireny cybgf guvaxvat V’q unir gvzr sbe gurz nyy, ohg orpnhfr bs yhpx V jnfa’g noyr gb svavfu gurz nyy orpnhfr snvyvat fgvyy hfrq hc gvzr. Vs V ercynlrq, V jbhyq whfg fgneg jvgu, sbe rknzcyr, gur nfgebabzre be jungrire, naq gura qvfpneq nyy pneqf gung jrer abg gur nfgebabzre hagvy gung jnf qbar, orsber zbivat ba gb gur arkg.

    A lot of story nexus games — and I tried out quite a few after really liking Samsara based on your recommendation — had this mechanic that I didn’t like all that much, where I felt like I was just click click clicking for the sake of clicking and it reminded me of the old facebook games like mafia wars where you just click random stuff and you gain meaningless stats and accumulate meaningless junk and the only consolation was that at least in most Story Nexus stories there was an end of the line where you could stop and the game is over. And because so many of the cards are grind cards in these games I end up seeing a lot of text over and over again that I’ve already seen before, which trains me to skim instead of read. So that when real new content comes up I wind up skimming it too, and then I go back to flipping my cards and it all starts to feel like an exercise in futility.

    The mechanism of having a limited number of actions that refresh slowly is also frustrating to me. I have to take long breaks between play to let the actions accumulate again, and by then I’ve lost the plot and can’t remember what I’d set out to do. The site says that it’s so that you sip the stories instead of binge on them, but it just means I waste half my actions each time trying to remember what I was trying to accomplish.

    Syn was kind of fun, but it hinted that if I replay it five times to see all the different endings, I unlock something special, so I’m currently on my third replay, but it’s mostly skim skim click click click because even with trying to stress different qualtiies, the text isn’t that different between playthroughs.

    I liked winterstrike, but the ironbird really caught my interest and I wanted to be on its side, but then after lots of grinding to build the ironbird’s regard up to a high enough level it turned out that being the ironbird’s friend wasn’t an allowed faction and so i picked a different one and then I had to squander my ironbird’s regard doing stuff for that faction, and I spent the endgame in a state of annoyance.

    Fallen London is overwhelming with all the different things happening at once and if there’s a plot, I haven’t found it yet. But I click the cards and then pick the choice that will raise my stats the most and i get transported to different locations for no discernable reason and it’s hard to finish anything at all.

    The Silver Tree was very pretty, but after a while it’s just grind get person a’s trust up a bit, then grind get person b’s trust a bit and it’s gone on too long now and i’m losing interest.

    It’s frustrating, because there’s something in these games that attracts me to them and I feel like they should be more fun than they are.

    • I have different feelings about some of the specific games you mention, but yeah, I’d agree that in general there are quite a few StoryNexus pieces where the sense of plot and/or agency aren’t strong enough for my tastes. If they lean too much on opportunity cards and grind rather than pinned cards or the equivalent, then it feels like I have no control over where it’s all going. If there are unlocks that aren’t clearly communicated, where a card is going to become available when my stats hit a certain level but I don’t know that, that can feel the same as just being stuck; and sometimes even when I’ve been clearly told in earlier text what I need to do, after a day or two away I’ve forgotten what precisely I’m supposed to be doing to trigger the next step.

      Fallen London is a special case, at least for me, because I’ve played far enough into it that I have a kind of sense for it; and because there’s just so much to find that it remains persistently entertaining.

      With Zero Summer, they obviously put a bulk of the effort into one-time-only content; there are relatively few grind cards, but lots and lots of plot arc cards. That’s an expensive way to produce stuff, though — and even so I felt like I was seeing the grind cards a lot.

      But I think balancing grind, communicating goals clearly, and reinforcing the player’s sense of agency (rather than being at the mercy of the cards) are design challenges that anyone drafting up a new StoryNexus piece is going to need to work out. Along with “how do I make the opening section work,” that is. My favorite opening so far is the one in Samsara, because of how quickly it gets you taking sides and actually playing. Though I came around, I groaned at first over Zero Summer having Yet Another Amnesia Premise.

  3. Hey folks, the head writer for Zero Summer here!

    Thanks so much for your feedback! All very helpful and insightful. A few replies (and caveat emptor: it might get a little wordy!):

    It’s really gratifying to hear someone contrast the lapidary house prose of StoryNexus with the grittier style of Zero Summer. In some ways, Zero Summer is intended to be a genre critique — of fantasy/sci-fi/westerns generally and of StoryNexus games specifically. I think it’s spot on to say that Fallen London, Samsara, etc. are perfumed, glossy, floaty games. The platform practically insists on it. Emergent content would be really challenging to write on StoryNexus, not to mention time-consuming. And lovely sweeping settings are attractive right from the beginning; it’s easy to make lovely sweeping games successful right out the gate.

    Zero Summer isn’t perfumed, or glossy, or floaty. We’re trying hard to engage our large cast of characters within their social contexts. Prose-wise, we’ve heard from FBG that Zero Summer is almost 20% as large as Fallen London. That’s because we’ve invested so much time in trying to make Amarillo and the larger setting breathe. We aren’t glossing over our characters. Zero Summer is a hard world populated by hard people. We want to talk about what that hardness means — what it costs to survive when the established order crumbles; what becomes normal, and the ways people keep on living and laughing.

    We also wish you folks could scroll back through cards you’ve seen before. I don’t know that there’s a way to do that without asking FBG to fool around in StoryNexus’s guts in a really time-consuming way. Clearly we aren’t going to do that!

    BUT we’ve also heard several requests for a way to re-establish where you are in the game. We’re working on a solution; it’ll be coming sooner than later. (This will also SIGNIFICANTLY reduce the amount of aimless wandering you have to do. If it were up to us, we’d have a clickable map a la Fallen London! But that’s a looong way down the road.)

    As far as letting people know when new content comes out: I understand from FBG that creators will, in the short- to medium-term, be able to email registered players with updates. Obviously we won’t spam you. But we do want to make sure you get our new content (e.g. the Halloween content that you can access by clicking here: http://zerosummer.storynexus.com/a/halloween2012 )

    And as far as Yet Another Amnesia Premise goes: I know — they drive me crazy, too! We’re very aware that the Amnesiac Protagonist is one of the great cliches of modern fiction. But in the long term, I think you’ll see we’re doing a really neat and rewarding bit of literary chicanery with it. I can’t give out details — you’ll just have to play and see! — but I will say that it’s not just a convenient excuse to give players a blank slate.

    One other thing I want to respond to directly:

    “[Zero Summer's] prose is generally longer and less diamond-cut-precise than the best of Fallen London. Sometimes there are a few more adjectives than strictly necessary.”

    Yup — absolutely! This goes back to my own sensibilities as a writer and a reader. I came up on modern fiction. I had my Winterson phase and my DeLillo phase and my Best American Short Stories phase. And it showed for years in my fiction. My ethos was “if it’s not necessary to the sentence, the paragraph and the story, it’s cut.”

    That lead to me writing a lot of short stories that were tight and hard-edged and driving and when I went back and reread them after they’d cooled down, it turned out they were totally airless and dead on the page. They were too restrained. (They read a lot like Cosmopolis by DeLillo, actually. Or The Body Artist. I understand the Cosmopolis movie is similar? Sharp and claustrophobic?)

    Then I slammed face-first into everything David Foster Wallace ever wrote. If you’ve never read DFW: his prose goes big. Way big. Like Texas big. It’s broad-shouldered and playful and loud and hugely verbal. But it’s not (or not usually) overwhelming. All its delicacy and gentleness lives in its center, inside all the noise and verbal gymnastics.

    Zero Summer reflects a similar ethos. We want to go big! We’d rather hit on all cylinders and overload the prose with adjectives and run-on sentences and throw out the Oxford comma and reach for the thesaurus and otherwise bang the pots and pans and make a lot of noise… because we think all the noise is fun. And because it’s a great way to sneak our thoughtful, delicate, emotional moments into what on the surface might look swaggering and gritty.

    (And if you’re interested in the clearest showing of our thoughtful/delicate/emotional dimension so far: check out “New England in November” and “Fifty Miles South of Lexington,” our first paid content. Feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive. Surprisingly positive, in fact; “Fifty Miles” is a more experimental structure, it shifts to a completely different narrator, and it’s gentle and bruised all at once.)

    Thanks for reading! I hope you give Zero Summer a shot. And I’d love to hear any feedback you have!

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