SilkWords

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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Reading and Hypothesis

I see more and more games with no story, only “backstory”. The game consists of piecing together what has gone before, and possibly performing a few anticlimactic actions to round it all off. Reviewers even speak of “the backstory” as if it’s the most important aspect of any game, right up there with mazes and hunger puzzles. It’s an outrage.

Backstory, Stephen Bond

For authors of interactive stories, presenting most of your story as backstory is often convenient because you can tell what did happen in a place without having to code any NPCs or allow for any branching in the backstory narrative: the past is a part of the story your interactive reader can’t touch. It places those events beyond the reach of player agency. At its worst a backstory driven piece can seem soulless and lonely, as the player wanders desolate locations from which all the other humans have already fled.

But there’s also an argument to be made that the backstory mystery is one of the most natural possible shapes for interactive literature. When it sets up questions and allows the player to look for answers, it engages the reader directly with the substance of the story rather than with extraneous tasks and challenges. It encourages reading hypothetically, making guesses about what really happened that are then affirmed or disproven as one goes.

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For anyone who isn’t familiar with The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home, it’s an indie game about a girl who has just come back from a year-long trip in Europe, to a house that her family moved into after she left and that is unfamiliar to her. No one is there, so she needs to wander the house and try to work out what happened to them. The house is also big and dark and suffering occasional electrical faults, while a storm rages outside, so for a while the game plays genre tricks with whether it’s really going to be a horror story.

Many people have responded with strong approbation, or at least strong feelings of some sort: first because it’s a game that allows itself to be not-very-gamelike, to indulge purely in its fiction; second, because it’s a queer coming of age story and those aren’t exactly well represented in mainstream games.

It is also pure backstory. But before we get into how I read that, some backstory of my own. There will also be some spoilers for Gone Home.

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