Someone emailed me today to ask for books with which to learn about storytelling in choice-based games, and this reminded me that I haven’t yet mentioned A Game Design Vocabulary: Exploring the Foundational Principles Behind Good Game Design here.
It’s a collaboration by Anna Anthropy and Naomi Clark, and is intended for student-level use — each chapter ends with review bullet points and some suggested study activities.
“Introductory” doesn’t mean shallow, though. For instance, the section on game storytelling covers a number of standard topics (the structural challenges of a branching storyline, emergent vs authored stories) but also brings in a lot of more recent indie and IF community thought on things like reflective choice and shared storytelling. It includes coverage of parser IF, Twine pieces, and Choice of Games works, among others. (Full disclosure: Bee and Floatpoint both get a mention.) There’s also a solid appendix of further playing content. Recommended.
More is a Shufflecomp game, based on a whole big batch of different songs. Structurally it reminded me quite a bit of Tea and Toast: both pieces give the player a task to perform in the foreground while simultaneously providing a slow drip of memories about a lover. It’s a way to get memory and emotion and interpersonal relationships into a parser game where all the main verbs are about picking up and moving objects. Not a trick that would work across the duration of a long game, but for both of these it works fine, I think.
There are differences. More is more overtly puzzly than Tea and Toast; there’s actually something to solve, not just something to do (though I didn’t find it especially difficult). The content is more implausible, and more melancholy. The lovers in Tea and Toast are lesbians who met on a bus and have a backstory that could easily belong to someone I know; the lovers in More are Bonnie-and-Clyde-style robbers who have finally been brought down by the need to keep acquiring, long after they had plenty.
I particularly liked this paragraph:
You try to remember when you and Tommy first met. You can’t. Isn’t that weird. That’s the sort of thing everyone remembers. It’s just like how you don’t remember when you first read a book or watched a movie. Everything fades into the past. His love haunts your entire life; the rest is gone.
Cryptophasia is about a baker in a voiceless future space-faring society which dedicates a lot of its time to ASMR (short for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) videos — a whole genre of videos in which people tap things, rustle things, and whisper or speak softly to the viewer in order to trigger a physiological response. Even for people who don’t get the tingling head ASMR response (not everyone does), they’re often very relaxing — which is why it’s possible for a 20-minute video of someone folding towels or tapping fake nails on a wooden box to have hundreds of thousands of views. A few ASMR videos have a plot, but that’s not really the point.
In the context of the story, the ASMR videos become doses of intimacy secretly delivered in a society that discourages such connections — which may not be so far off from their appeal in the current world, come to that.
I enjoyed the strangeness of this piece. It probably needs to be played a couple of times; at least, I found that it made most sense when I’d seen more than one of the endings.
Barbetween is a Seltani age written for Shufflecomp but excluded from the final competition because it was impossible to archive. Seltani is an online multiplayer text space that combines Twine-like room and object descriptions with the capacity for live chat and exchanges with other players in the same area.
I’d like to talk about Barbetween, but it’s the kind of piece that benefits a lot from being played in more or less complete ignorance of what’s going to happen, so I really suggest you do that. (It doesn’t take long.)
I played with the song that inspired it on in the background, and that proved to be a good choice.
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.
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.