Once at GDC I heard someone give a talk in which the speaker said, in essence, “Don’t show your audience anything that isn’t already a common trope in a movie or another video game of the same genre.” Which is amazing if you think about it. Invent nothing. Observe nothing. Bring no original truth to your piece. Do not teach your audience anything, and do not imbue your work with anything of yourself. This is probably the worst writing advice I have ever heard. If it has any even notional justification, it’s that it gives the audience what they want, assuming they don’t want to be challenged or think new thoughts (and the marketing department has concluded that they don’t).

The opposite failing is author-service work: stuff that’s so personal to the creator that it’s inaccessible or overwhelming. To tell someone your secrets can be an intensely manipulative act. Certain emotions may be required in exchange: pity, surprise, a suitable horror. This isn’t always a bad thing, but I brace myself when I come across a piece that seems primarily designed to make me feel something about the author, or to exorcise the author’s distress.

But it’s not as though the mean is an easy space to occupy. It demands both craft and heart, and the discipline to sit with something you feel deeply and keep working on it over and over until it is also comprehensible and valuable to someone else.

ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III both describes and exemplifies how art drifts back and forth in that huge space between creator and audience, occupying different positions, carrying different meanings. It shows how art can become a vessel for an intimacy that hasn’t otherwise been earned.

The following discussion contains spoilers, so be warned.

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Love is Zero (Porpentine, Brenda Neotenomie, Sloane)

Love is Zero screenshot

Love is Zero is a Twine piece about vampire high school girls in a tennis school on the moon. It’s not really a piece with plot, per se: instead it’s a sort of meditation on how identities are formed. You have a series of choices — usually “STUDY”, “PLAY TENNIS”, and “BULLY”, though sometimes specialized other choices as well. Every time you make a decision, something new is added to the long sentence that describes who you are. And despite how it may look, all of those choices are rather harsh ones. Bullying is obviously problematic, but playing tennis is about winning and beating other people down, about getting hit with rackets and hurting and not minding. And studying is about kissing up to teachers and gaining knowledge that sounds frightening and dangerous. So the STUDY / TENNIS / BULLY choice is not a PET PUPPY / KISS PUPPY / KILL PUPPY style of moral choice. They’re all sort of KILL PUPPY options.

Sometimes things happen to you outside of your control and those can affect your description too. You belong to a randomized clique with a randomized uniform. The vampirism and the tennis are signs for something else — for the bloody and out of control violence of teen emotions, for the ubiquity of blood in puberty, for competitiveness. The game touches also sometimes on the relationships girls have with their bodies — there are some randomized events that touch on and talk about eating disorders.

That all sounds pretty heavy, but the game is very stylized and cartoony. It manages to talk about the real emotions that underlie teenage female experiences while at the same time not overwhelming the player with hyperrealism. Porpentine’s gift for capturing significant feelings and experiences in single sentences is once again on display here.


My breasts were heaving, literally, like in a novel. (The Night I Wore a Mask, silkwords.com)

SilkWords is a new website for interactive romance and erotica — a commercial one, paying authors $500 and up. Unlike a lot of the other recent experiments in paid interactive fiction, it runs on a subscription model: pay for a month at a time, read as much as you’d like. It’s a model that presumably needs a steady stream of new content to keep readers engaged. There are currently nine stories available, and three more listed as coming soon; they are rated by hotness, from “mild” to “very hot” and “BDSM”.

Structurally, the pieces I tried are really straightforward CYOA: choice points typically give only two options (and occasionally only give one, a Continue choice). There’s no visible world-state tracking. My playthroughs were typically two to four choice points long, with very large amounts of text in between. When I asked about retained variables via twitter, the response was that the engine was capable of more, but that the site is initially focusing on story over gameness. This is of course a perfectly fair response, but I often felt these would have worked better as interactive stories (not, necessarily, games) if they had allowed a few more choice points, more carefully selected.

Some comments on specific stories follow.

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The Southern Reach and Transmedia

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The Southern Reach is a project partly by Alex Warren (creator of Quest), working with HarperCollins to promote Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, part one of a trilogy. The premise appears to be that there’s a sinister area (Area X) into which a number of expeditions have gone — and perhaps not returned. There are hints that something has gone wrong there biologically, and that some of those who go in experience hallucinations or perceptual distortions.

The game segment is fairly brief: it frames itself as a “training” experience, in which you’re taught to recognize lies, wear gloves before handling fungus, and calm the fears of your associates. “Training” is a trope I’ve seen several times in tie-in works (see also British Intelligence Officer Exam, which is a considerably deeper and longer story), presumably because it provides an obvious context in which the rules of the universe are presented to the player, but sandboxed in such a way that the player cannot affect the actual plot of the major work being advertised.

The game story in Southern Reach feels a little bit unsatisfying all by itself, because it’s not really trying to answer any of the mysteries it raises — it’s perhaps up to the book to do that. There are a number of audio and visual elements, but the main body of the exploration is a straightforward choice-based game with textual descriptions, and it feels very classic IF-ish in the way that it describes new locations and moves you around on a map.

Which leads me to a point about the Transmedia concept that has been bothering me for some time. I’ve been several times to the website of a forthcoming tool called Conducttr which is designed to allow people more easily to build big transmedia projects that tie into multiple websites and social networks and so on. On the one hand, I’m basically allergic to anything that is trying to make me interact with it via email, Twitter or Facebook — staying connected to other real people in real life is a time-consuming but important task, and I don’t want those channels garbaged up (as I see it) by either incoming or outgoing messages to bots and games. On the other hand, I’m interested in Conducttr anyway in the same way that I’m generally interested in any new tool that offers a previously unexplored way of telling people a story. In any case, on Conducttr’s website is this image:

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I understand what the picture is trying to communicate. But what I see when I look at this is: the Transmedia Concept means that the contributing movie, game, and book are all individually misshapen, dissatisfying lumps. Is this actually better? Both as author and as player, I think I’d like the individual elements to be good in themselves, as well as (possibly) a cool participation in a whole; and if I have to choose whether they should be good in themselves or good only in concert, I think I would actually prefer that they each be individually high-quality experiences — because the set of people likely to encounter only one is higher than the set likely to encounter all three, and because someone who has a not-totally-compelling experience with a part of a transmedia entity is thereby the less likely to look for the others (I would assume).

I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say the Southern Reach game is a misshapen lump. If this were a standalone IF game, I would at the very least be saying, “hey, look, here’s an interesting IF UI that you haven’t exactly seen before.” But it’s definitely unfinished and dependent — and at the same time, it didn’t tell me enough about its world, or get me to care so deeply about its characters, to get me to buy the book. Other people’s mileage may vary, though.