Assorted Projects

Boon Hill

Boon Hill is a successful-but-still-in-progress Kickstarter for a project in which the player/reader explores a graveyard full of epitaphs. It’s an invitation to create your own meaning out of scraps of evidence, conceptually a little reminiscent of 18 Cadence.

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Conversations With My Mother is a Twine piece by Merritt Kopas, in which you can click on the text to swap one piece of text for another before proceeding. It’s powerful and very brief to experience, and it does some things with Twine that go beyond typical formal features of choice-based narrative. Worth a look.

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Pipe Trouble is one of those pipe-laying puzzle games… except that it’s also about the politics of gas pipelines in Canada. Connect the pipes in the wrong way and you’ll annoy farmers, cause spills, or irritate environmental protesters. And it has text by Jim Munroe.

CIA: Operation Ajax

CIA: Operation Ajax is an enhanced graphic novel about the 1953 coup d’état 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.

Several Interesting Projects

The Silver Tree is a new, Kickstarted project by the Failbetter people: it’s to be short and self-contained, and explore what happened to the 13th century Mongol city of Karakorum in the universe of Fallen London. Since I remain hugely fond of the Fallen London/Echo Bazaar universe and lore, I’m excited about getting a peek in at another piece of it, this time in a slightly more focused gameplay form. The project site has some preview art and an interview with Yazmeen Khan, who is doing the writing.

I not-very-secretly hope this represents a successful approach for Failbetter, as I am not crazy about the way Fallen London generates revenue (make gameplay grindy, then charge players micro-amounts to make it go faster). I would much rather see stories funded through direct purchase and/or prefunding. It’s been a very successful campaign, which is encouraging. Also, they’re offering one of my all time favorite types of backer reward, a deck of custom cards. I am a total sucker for those for some reason.

Dominique Pamplemousse in “It’s All Over Once the Fat Lady Sings!” is a stop-motion musical adventure by Deirdra Kiai (The Play, Life Flashes By, assorted other projects). The whole concept is pleasingly off the beaten path.

Finally, if you’re interested in what Chris Crawford is doing these days, he also has a project on Kickstarter, a Balance of the Planet simulator that asks you to set tax prices for various types of pollution and then calculates a final score based on 58 years of result. It’s a curiously uninteractive experience, in that you set some sliders and then wait to see what happens (or, alternatively, read through the many pages of explanatory articles on different environmental factors).

Chris’ own description suggests that this is meant to be a forensic experience: run the simulator, then stare at the graphs to work out what went wrong, then try again. And you can, indeed, backtrack a bit through the graphs, breaking them down into components and checking out the things that contributed to those components and so on, in a way that is much more in-your-face about numbers than, say, Electrocity or some of the other educational or persuasive energy-policy games I’ve looked at in the past: it’s trying to make the argument quantitatively and crunchily.

And it’s quite hard to get things to balance, so I come away thinking, “hrm, we’re all dooooomed,” not “here’s how to save the planet.” (Except that I also don’t buy some of the game’s premises, such as the baked-in assumption that whatever taxes we set in year 1 we then cannot change at all for the next decades, other than to phase them in gradually.)

All that said, I like the concept of mathematically rigorous simulations to teach these problems; I also like the implication that the player will be able to experiment with different assumptions about the world model. I do wish that there were a more appealing front end and that the challenges were taught gradually, however.

“maybe make some change”

Aaron Reed’s “maybe make some change” is a more polished, web-accessible release of the work that premiered at the IF Demo Fair as “what if im the bad guy”. Aaron is releasing it today on the ten-year anniversary of the beginning of our war in Afghanistan. (Edited to add: there’s an authorial perspective on this piece here.)

When “what if im the bad guy” was presented at the IF Demo Fair, I didn’t get through it: the game play required putting yourself in the shoes of a soldier, committing violent acts and in some cases typing racial epithets. (At least, as I recall this was unavoidable, but I obviously don’t have access to that version to double check again.) This was just too uncomfortable for me to do in public, and possibly at all, so I put the game aside.

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Chevron’s Advice About Energy

I’ve written before about Electrocity, a charming game about energy sources. It’s by a New Zealand energy company and has some discernible biases and local priorities, but it’s actually a fairly entertaining game with decent gameplay.

Energyville is a very similar game by Chevron, which was immediately enough to raise my eyebrows.

It’s also much less effective as a bit of persuasive gaming. Instead of having dozens of turns in which to watch your city grow and change, you have two: one where you can establish your city’s power sources for 2015, and another where you set a few things in motion for 2030. Each power source, from biofuel to nuclear energy, has results measured in three axes: cost, environmental impact, and threat to national security. (Electrocity doesn’t deal with security implications at all.)

Bolstering the educational side of Energyville, you’re allowed to click through for more information on energy resources, and these are generally provided by fairly substantial quotes from policy papers and studies. (This aspect of the game is more aimed at adults than at kids, I think — there are a lot of hard numbers, which I appreciate, but suspect would make younger users glaze over a little. I don’t know enough about energy politics to be able to assess what sorts of think tanks the quotes are coming from.)

There’s a little bit of randomness in the game, because after each turn you’re dealt a couple of world events cards, which could be things like terrorist activity that drives up the cost of oil, the discovery of new technologies that make some energy sources more efficient, droughts that undercut the value of hydroelectric dams, or legislation that forces car companies to construct flex-fuel cars. That’s a nice touch: it reinforces the idea that it’s hard to do completely definite long-term planning on these topics, and it introduces some replayability.

Energyville lacks the visceral feedback of Electrocity on the environmental front. In Electrocity, your pretty little model city becomes visibly uglier if you choose polluting resources and cut down forests. Energyville abstracts all that away into a meter that swings to and fro to indicate how bad things are getting. It’s much easier to ignore that meter.

Another interesting touch is that you’re not allowed to establish your city without any petroleum resources at all. Try to build one without a big oil rig off the coast, and you just won’t be allowed to move forward, on the grounds that your planes and cars require that oil. How convenient for Chevron.

The thing is, I do understand what they’re trying to say. Right now, it is implausible to shut off our use of petroleum completely. But their game states that rather than demonstrating it — a persuasive game failure. It would be much more effective to let me go forward without such a rig, and then watch my city descend into gridlock and rioting.

“Interactive fiction” from the publishing side

Recently I’ve run into a few references to “interactive fiction” where the term doesn’t mean any kind of game, but something more choose-your-own-adventure-like. In the 80s we had Infocom appropriating the word “fiction” in order to lend an impression of literary depth and respectability to its brand; now we have book publishers borrowing interactivity in order to make their publications seem more appealing, particularly to young people. I’m interested in this, but not terribly heartened by the samples I’ve run into recently.

One example is this series of choose your own adventure books aimed at helping “tween” girls make Christian decisions. I assume the author has the best intentions for this project, but — leaving aside the actual content of the decisions — I get the strong impression that the reader is presented with choices each of which has only one rather blatant “right” solution:

In the Scenarios series, each main character is faced with many choices and moral dilemmas. Eventually, they find that their choices have led them into a situation that requires them to make a very difficult and potentially life-altering moral decision. When the story has fully unfolded, and the main character arrives at that moment of truth, the reader makes the big decision for her and then turns to the corresponding section in the book where the resulting circumstances unfold. This places the responsibility for those decisions squarely on the reader’s shoulders, in hopes that she will learn from her personal experience as she lives it through the eyes of the book’s character. She will learn the importance of good decisions as well as the truth about forgiveness and grace. Even when poor choices are made, the redemptive power of Christ is evident as forgiveness is sought, offered and received.

When I was in sixth grade we had a drug awareness program in school that included similar exercises, in which we were asked to pick whether we would Give In To Peer Pressure or Just Say No. Not so much roleplaying, which I can somewhat understand; just picking what was the Right Answer. I’m not sure what this was meant to accomplish other than to make sure the students knew what the teacher wanted to hear.

Though I’m very interested in interactive choice in general, I find this particular use of choice (“you get to choose, but if you choose the Morally Wrong Answer, you get preached at!”) aesthetically repellent and also ineffective as propaganda. This is not a story; it’s a quiz. I have no problem with that in the context of, say, safety training: I once had a job that involved potential exposure to chemical toxins and radioactive substances, and I had no problem being trained with multiple-choice questions about what to do when I dropped a beaker of liquid, or the role-playing scene where I needed to dispose of something safely. But there wasn’t any moral judgment involved there, just a procedure I needed to learn to follow.

I suspect the Christian Morality Storyquiz does the reader a disservice by pretending that life is simpler than it actually is. Unless the reader has some ability to share the protagonist’s temptation, it’s easy to piously do the right thing on her behalf — and for that experience to be nothing like preparation for real world situations. (Not to mention that sometimes you can do what you absolutely believe is the right thing and still hurt someone’s feelings thereby and face unhappy consequences.) So it all sounds a bit plastic. And most kids old enough to fit the “tween” category are old enough to smell the artificiality a mile off.

The second example comes in the form of a press release emailed to me:

Writers of interactive fiction for the 21st Century wanted

- mifiction calls for entries from established and aspiring authors to create modern day interactive fiction -

UK, October 13, 2009: mifiction, an innovative online publisher based in the UK, is looking to reinvigorate interactive fiction using the latest in modern technology, and your writing skills.

In an effort to encourage authors and to find a host of exciting and imaginative stories, mifiction is hosting a writing competition which is open to anyone with an interest in interactive fiction and a passion for writing.

About the competition:
Aimed at writers who are enthusiastic about teen fiction, mifiction is encouraging authors over the age of 16 to submit entries from almost any genre…

It turns out that what they’re looking for is choose your own adventure stories that can be delivered in snippets of 150 words, the better to display on a mobile phone.

This is a fairly restrictive form, I feel, and I’m not encouraged by the fact that the very first snippet of their example “interactive fiction” contains the text “You can sees it now…”.

But what bothers me about it even more is the recommended implementation structure. To avoid uncontrollable amounts of content, the guidelines suggest that story branches should reconnect to the main storyline. However, the system does not track variables and has no preserved state other than the fact of which text we’re currently looking at. So player’s past choices are forgotten and disregarded as soon as the story rejoins, which means in practical terms that none of one’s early choices will matter. (Unless — one could argue this — viewing one branch rather than another significantly affects the interpretation of later material. But that’s a bit meta.) In any case, what they’re implementing could be implemented equally well as a series of very simple HTML pages, with none of the complexities to be found in more sophisticated literary hypertext software.

That said, first prize in this competition is 300 UKP (about $490 at present exchange rates), for what I suspect is substantially less work than entering the IF Comp once. So hey, perhaps someone will find it’s worth trying to wrangle an interesting interactive experience out of this extremely bare-bones format.