80 Days (Meg Jayanth / inkle )

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80 Days is a gorgeous iOS game from inkle studios and a script by Meg Jayanth, who (among other things) did the StoryNexus Samsara project. 80 Days takes off from the Jules Verne novel about Phileas Fogg’s round-the-world race; but it adds steampunk elements to the setting (I realize that some people feel about steampunk the way I feel about zombies) and allows the player to set the route, casting him in the role of Fogg’s valet Passepartout. Different routes take different amounts of time and have different costs associated with them; money and health are both resources that must be replenished periodically. The player can also buy (or more rarely acquire through narrative events) various inventory items that make the trip more comfortable, reveal new routes, or sell for fantastic profits in distant cities. It’s also slightly more constrained than the big open map might initially make it seem: you can’t really backtrack in some cases, even if there’s a nominally valid route in a particular direction and even if you the player think it would be a good idea.

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Hide&Seek: Tiny Games Kickstarter

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Tiny Games is a Kickstarter-funded app offering rulesets for dozens and dozens of short, simple games, designed for a variety of social situations: games to play at the the pub, on the train, in your living room. Hide&Seek has years of experience doing installation-style games at museums and festivals, including the very cool Searchlight game demonstrated at the GDC Experimental Games Workshop this year. The Tiny Games collection includes work by a long list of well-known experimental game designers.

I’ve enjoyed all the Hide&Seek work I’ve encountered, and I especially like the playfulness of this concept, as a source of social lubrication and fun when no one happens to have a pack of cards or wants to commit to a playthrough of Arkham Horror. Or you just want to do something new.

There are only a couple of days left on this project and it’s still shy of its funding goal, so if it sounds like something you might be interested in, check it out.

Future Voices (inkle)

Future Voices logoFuture Voices is an iOS-based anthology of eleven CYOA stories from inkle, culled from an open competition. As one might expect from inkle’s work, it’s an aesthetically pleasing object: it uses Frankenstein’s imagery of pieces of paper being attached to the end of an ongoing, developing story. Proofreading is not flawless — I ran into a handful of typos here and there — but this is a fairly rare problem, and overall the app is an elegant-looking piece of work, tactile and classy.

I’m also delighted to see someone running with the concept of anthologized interactive narrative: curating and promoting the best material from the wide variety of freeware is still a really useful role for publishers or publisher-equivalents. And I gather that the competition leading to this anthology drew work from a wide range of authors, some of whom had no previous experience with interactive writing.

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CIA: Operation Ajax

CIA: Operation Ajax is an enhanced graphic novel about the 1953 coup d’├ętat in Iran, engineered by the CIA and British intervention.

The story is compellingly told, with the clear intent of both teaching the reader something and establishing a particular attitude towards what happened. CIA: Operation Ajax works to establish its credibility. It is thorough — it runs about a dozen chapters and took me multiple hours to read; this is not a brief pamphlet, and to lay out a story about 1953 it starts with originating events in 1908 and works its way forward. There are also a number of supporting documents that are embedded in the story or accessible through supporting menus. In some panels, a star appears — a kind of visual footnote marker, which will bring up citations or background articles for claims that the story is making. And yet this is also not a documentary. The choice of dialogue, the manner of drawing, the narrator’s plainly expressed horror and regret about what happened, all convey an unmistakable attitude towards events, and the final chapter drives home the point that the effect of American intervention was to destroy a democratic government and create significant future problems in the region.

The production values are extremely impressive, and it makes the most of the idea of a computer-aided comic format: panels slide in and out of frame, speech bubbles pop up and disappear, characters shift positions; but the comic book metaphor never drops away entirely, and the screens never cross the line into the territory of animated movie. The only exception is that old newsreels are embedded at intervals, documenting events such as the arrival of Mossadegh in New York to speak to the UN. There are no voiceovers, but background sound effects and music do a great job of establishing mood. I would suggest being sure to read with headphones or somewhere where you can afford to leave the sound up.

By the standard of most things I review on this blog, CIA: Operation Ajax is only very barely interactive at all. You can tap to advance the story; you can tap stars or look through the character roster to bring up supporting evidence. The affordances are roughly equivalent to turning pages or flipping to a set of end-notes in a conventional book — and if accessing notes is less annoying in this format than it would be on paper, conversely you’ll be tapping to advance many more times than you would turn pages under ordinary circumstances, just because of how many different frames there are. There’s too little connection between reader actions and story events to establish a sense of complicity in what’s happening, much less to leverage some of the more difficult and complex player/story relationships we see in interactive narrative. So I’m not convinced by some of the more breathless blurb-writing about how it represents a revolution in interactive storytelling. What it does do is present a fairly uninteractive story in a very memorable and compelling form.

Storydeck: Steampunk and Ella

Storydeck is a system by Ian Millington and Emily Bembeneck, using the concept of Doodle God as a mechanism for storytelling. You play by accumulating story elements and combining them to unlock new storylet events, which in turn give you new elements to combine. In Doodle God those elements were things like “fire” and “water” combining to make a “steam” element; in Storydeck elements are instead characters, locations, artifacts, and so on. There are two Storydecks in current release, a Steampunk deck about a clockwork Victorian mystery and an Ella deck that appears to be a recasting of Cinderella. They’re prettily-made things, too, with evocative, mysterious illustrations for each of the story element cards.

This sounds great. I enjoyed Doodle God. I’ve enjoyed other games that were to some extent about combining narrative elements in inventive ways, often using some kind of card mechanism: Once Upon A Time, Gloom, Daniel Benmergui’s recent Storyteller game (not to be confused with his earlier game of the same name).

But the Storydeck games aren’t really clicking for me as interactive experiences, and the reason is — paradoxically — that they’re not generic enough.

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Angal Tentara; inkle’s Frankenstein

Periodically I check out interactive narrative projects on Kickstarter, whether they’re by people I’ve heard of before or not. Angal Tentara and The Root of All Evil is an “interactive animation” for iOS. It looks like it’s working with a fairly standard fantasy premise about a young person who has a destiny tying her back to an ancient civilization. Two things struck me about it, though. First, it comes with a backer reward consisting of a “storybook kit” with what look like some pretty nice-quality feelies:

Second, check out the video on the Kickstarter page — no, not the main video, the one a little lower down that’s titled “Story Telling 2.0″. The “you become the editor” model, with a conscious attention to the reader’s ability to expand or advance the narrative, is reminiscent of stuff the IF community sometimes talks about. Though the video is brief and doesn’t go into a lot of detail, this strikes me as a more mature/considered description of how the story is going to be interactive than I’ve found in a lot of interactive project proposals. Remains to be seen whether the project will actually deliver on that model, but hey.

Meanwhile inkle studios — the company formed by Jon Ingold and Joseph Humfrey — has just announced that it’s working on an interactive version of Frankenstein for iOS, published with Profile Books. Their press release is not so specific about the theory underlying the project (perhaps intentionally). Nonetheless, I’m keen to see what Jon and company come up with here.