Writing in Collaboration with the System

I’ve written in the past about the value of a systematic mechanic.

What I mean by this is something that most game designers wouldn’t bother to preface with “systematic”: it’s just the mechanic, the thing the player does in the game in order to influence the model world and make progress. But adventure games, including but not limited to parser IF, often have mechanics that boil down to “move”, “take thing”, “drop thing”, and then a host of specialized object applications and unique verbs. So I add the word “systematic” to indicate something more coherent and consistent than that, a design in which consistent verbs are used repeatedly across the course of the game, and the player is taught to interact with the model world in such a way as to gain in effective agency as they are able to anticipate more and more of the results of their actions.

I’ve mostly talked about this in terms of how a good mechanic makes puzzle design easier and more coherent, and how it allows for consistent coding.

There’s another angle to this as well, though: a well-defined mechanic becomes a writing prompt. It shapes the kind and amount of content we need to write. At its worst it imposes a large burden of excess work, but at its best it inspires thinking about our setting and story in a new way. I find that real stare-at-the-blankness-of-the-page I-can-think-of-nothing-at-all-to-write writer’s block is not a common problem when I’m working on IF, especially IF with a strong mechanic, and I think that’s partly because the machine is always there, offering me prompts.

(I should also caveat what follows by saying that this is my interpretation, as an author and a player: I am inspired in different ways by different systems, but that does not mean either that these are the only suitable uses of the systems, or that other people are or should be inspired in the same ways. I don’t want to lard what follows with too much “I think” and “I find” and “for me” disclaimers, but this is all somewhat subjective.)

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A (Mostly Recentish) IF List, For Breadth

At the London IF Meetup this week, several people mentioned that they’d like to get a better sense of the range of what IF can do. This is a list I’ve put together to suggest the variety of what is out there — different types of play, different ideas about how interactive storytelling could possibly work. Notice that this list includes fiction and nonfiction, many different genres, and many different target audiences.

I’ve also leaned especially toward work that is by people who are part of the meetup group — starred pieces are by people you might run into at one of our meetings.

18 Cadence, by Aaron Reed. Play with snippets of story, construct your own, share with other people. A physically beautiful work that touches on themes of oppression and civil rights, grief and change, love and growth, without being particularly heavy-handed about any of it. Instead, it leaves a space for you to discover your own strands of meaning — and it also happens to include some cool procedural text reworking.

howling dogs, by Porpentine. A sometimes disorienting but powerful sequence of vignettes; it is difficult to explain this one in advance, but this is one of the pieces that really got people paying attention to Twine.

* Aisle, by Sam Barlow. A one-move parser-based game that allows you to type any of many, many different commands in order to discover what to do next. This is one of the older pieces on the list here, but Aisle functions so well as an introduction to what’s fun about parser IF that I’m including it anyway.

* Fallen London, Failbetter Games. A massive sprawling browser-based exploration of a world in which Victorian London has been stolen and taken underground by space bats. (Sort of.) Free to play; lots of lovely prose; many small plot arcs within a very long ongoing world exploration.

Solarium, Alan deNiro. A gripping Twine piece about the madness of the Cold War.

maybe make some change, Aaron Reed. IF augmented with video and audio effects, about a true war-time event. It uses the mechanic of player-typed commands to express fundamental points about the actions that we’ve learned and the terminology with which we think about people and situation.

My Father’s Long Long Legs, by Michael Lutz. A very linear, tightly focused piece of Twine horror that explores how effective it can be to make the player responsible for moving forward through the story, even when there are very few choices.

* Black Crown, Rob Sherman. Uses similar underlying mechanics to Fallen London, but to tell a more focused and darker story. Body horror and strange smells abound.

Choice of the Deathless, from the long-running Choice of Games line. This one is about a magic-using, demon-contract-making law firm. In general, games in this series do a lot with player character customization, providing lots of ways to experience similar issues and problems. Choice of the Deathless has an especially strong premise and setting. Choice of the Deathless is for pay; Choice of Games also offers some freebie experiences, though in my opinion they are a bit less good.

Conversations with My Mother, Merritt Kopas. A reflection on interpersonal relationships in the context of a trans experience, with links outward to actual tweets and real-world documents.

Analogue: A Hate Story, Christine Love. An illustrated science fiction puzzle-story about piecing together what happened aboard a damaged generation ship.

* First Draft of the Revolution, Emily Short, Liza Daly, and inkle. An interactive epistolary story where you play in the juncture between what people want to say to one another, and what they actually dare to say. The player’s role is to revise the letters being sent between characters.

* Moquette, Alex Warren. A somewhat melancholy slice of life story about a dissatisfied man riding the Underground. Features some neat procedural effects for creating the stops on the journey and the characters who get on and off the train.

Lost Pig, by Admiral Jota. A light-hearted, deeply implemented parser game about a lost orc called Grunk.

* Sorcery!, Steve Jackson and inkle. An old-style gamebook updated as a modern app, and one that has gotten very widespread appreciation.

* Bee, Emily Short. A real-life story about a homeschooled girl training for a national spelling bee. It’s built on the Varytale system, which means that the player gets to select which snippets of the story to read next, then make choices within each subchapter.

* Frankenstein, Dave Morris and inkle. A modern retelling of the Frankenstein story that explores what was going through the minds of all the major characters.

Kerkerkruip, Victor Gijsbers et al. A highly randomized dungeon-crawl story with rogue-like mechanics, but textual descriptions of events. Illustrated with a map and other colorful features.

Edited to add: in case it’s of interest, here is an old post, with screenshots, listing text-based games of various kinds. Some are interactive stories; some are interactive poems or other types of games that happen to use text.

Assorted IF-related News and Links

Black Crown is a forthcoming Random House project by Failbetter. It’s not playable yet, but there’s a sign-up page here and Wired gives some additional background. Over at The Literary Platform, Alexis Kennedy mentions the game as well in a longer article about the possible relationship between books and games.

Dave Morris (Frankenstein) weighs in on whether randomness is really a help to interactive fiction, tying the question in with gamebooks and computer adaptations of gamebooks.

Deirdra Kiai gives an interview on the claymation point-and-click adventure Dominique Pamplemousse in “It’s All Over Once the Fat Lady Sings”, discussing the gender roles, inspirations from Fallen London, the claymation process, and various other features.

The XYZZY Awards are now in second-round voting, with the nominees chosen. This year’s crop includes Twine and StoryNexus content as well as parser-based IF. You can vote here; authors may not vote for their own games and are discouraged from posting “vote for me” sorts of messages, but otherwise the voting process is open to anyone through May 7.

Various people, including Warren Spector, Kevin Bruner (Telltale), Stéphane Bura (Storybricks) and me, will be speaking about interactive storytelling at the IFOG symposium May 10 in Mountain View.

Zero Summer: Fifty Miles South of Lexington

Zero Summer IconIn November I wrote about the StoryNexus game Zero Summer. At the time I didn’t play their for-pay content, Fifty Miles South of Lexington, but I’ve done so now, and it deserves its own discussion. Fifty Miles is its own short story, which you can buy from within the main game of Zero Summer using Nex, once you’ve progressed far enough to move around town a bit.

From the StoryNexus perspective, Fifty Miles South of Lexington is pushing the envelope of what the engine can do. Which is a good thing! Every new storytelling engine needs some content that pushes it to or beyond its capacity; that’s how the formal capacities of the machine are discovered. Experimental stuff typically feels just a little bit odd, though, just because it is doing something that may be hacky and weird for the affordances of the toolset. Consequently, the following is a review both of the content of Fifty Miles and a discussion of StoryNexus’ ability to cope with this kind of content.

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Assorted Items

Failbetter is Kickstarting Below, a StoryNexus piece with rogue-like underground exploration and a Viking-flavored backstory. One of the higher-tier rewards is a physical opportunity deck; I have an earlier version of this from their Silver Tree Kickstarter, and it’s a fun piece. Not sure if this sounds like your thing? There’s a playable prototype already online.

If you’d rather write your own StoryNexus game, you might be interested to know that the Winter World of the Season competition is open; the deadline is 31st December 2012, and the entries will be judged by a panel of various interactive storytelling people, including Jon Ingold.

Meanwhile, “To Be or Not To Be: That is The Adventure”, a choose-your-path version of Hamlet (careful not to call itself CYOA for legal reasons) has steamed through to an astounding $139K raised. This is no doubt due in part to the luscious Kate Beaton illustrations accompanying the pitch. Like this:

Which incidentally looks like it might be prototyped in Twine. (Check out 4:07 in the video if you don’t believe me.)