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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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.

The Walking Dead (Telltale)

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I’m late to the party on this, I know, but I’ve finally finished Telltale’s The Walking Dead series.

Though I generally dislike the gun porn and grotesquery typical of zombie fiction, I got so many recommendations of this series that I had to play it. I thought very highly of it, and I thought the later episodes were significantly better than the first couple.

There has already been a ton written about the series, so this isn’t really a review or an attempt to summarize its content, as both of those purposes have been amply served already; what follows is more of an essay about the mechanics, choice mechanisms, and writing. It is fairly full of spoilers, because it’s pretty much impossible to talk significantly about this game without getting into the details. Consider yourself warned.

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Recent Interactive Reading

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No-one Has to Die is a fairly easy puzzle game, framed with a textual story about time travel, secrets, revenge, and family loyalties. To my taste the puzzles are a little too easy — there weren’t that many serious “aha” moments for me — but the structure is clever, as puzzle solutions require you to experiment with which characters you’re willing to sacrifice, and understanding the story fully requires working through several variant possibilities. As to the writing, it could have been both briefer and more effective; character dialogue is very on-the-nose, and they argue exhaustively about who should be saved next and why. (Contrast all the long-winded, sterile argumentation about who should be saved here with the sparer and much more moving writing in Hide&Seek’s James Bond game.)

What’s most interesting about No-one Has to Die is the structure: puzzles used to represent significant and morally charged decisions, inventive reuse of the same puzzle levels with slightly different parameters depending on the time-travel, etc.


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Alan DeNiro’s Corvidia is a brief, surreal piece in Twine, more interactive poetry than story. A man looks at a tree and sees… well, it’s hard to explain, really. Due to some CSS work, the linked words appear first, and boldest; the rest of the words, the sentences that give the links context, fade in slowly. It’s a fitting effect given that “Corvidia” seems to be describing someone fixated on a few particular images or ideas (the words linked), with only a vague and fantastical notion of what’s going on in the rest of the world. Or maybe what he imagines is true, but in that case, he lives in a universe very unlike our own.


StarWenchWS

Star Wench is a Choose Your Own Death book by Anna Anthropy. Not Choose Your Own Adventure, because (aside from the whole trademark issue) you don’t get to pick what leads up to the death:

How does the story end? Only YOU can find out! Your one choice: which page to open up to. Keep reading until you’ve suffered not one but MANY terrible fates.

The genre is lurid pulp SF, the same sort of thing parodied in Leather Goddesses of Phobos and in Anthropy’s Twine adventure The Hunt for the Gay Planet. The endings conform to genre expectations: you spend a lot of your time being tied up, or sacrificed, or eaten, or made the slave and plaything of the sinister Queen of Space. Endings are no more than a page long, in large type, though a few are doubled up with line-drawings by guest artists. Many of the endings are solid ultra-short stories in themselves. Others imply things about the story that must have led up to this point, or play on CYOA or genre expectations. (If you read ending 1, you get a stern telling-off about reading non-linear narrative in a linear way.) There’s no narratively meaningful agency, since you’re really only picking an ending by number — it’s not like you get to make in-context choices for your protagonist — but that fits as well, celebrating the arbitrary nature of both pulp fiction and old-school CYOA books.

Entertaining, if not especially work-safe.


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Castle of the Red Prince is parser-based gothic horror IF by CEJ Pacian. Lots of Pacian’s past work in some way sets aside a standard aspect of the IF world model: Gun Mute puts the player on a linear forward/back movement track, Walker & Silhouette can be driven largely by keyword, Rogue of the Multiverse uses auto-generated grids of space for its exploration sequences. “Castle of the Red Prince” participates in that tradition by eradicating the usual distinctions of IF space. Everything in the game can be interacted with at any time; if you try to put an object in a container many rooms away, you will move there automatically. You can look at any place on the map, any room, at any time. If you’ve ever seen something, it remains in scope for you to refer to.

The protagonist is a student of arcane arts who is able to gain new knowledge in sleep and who first came to know of this place through dreams. There are some characters, but we so easily move in and out of their space that it’s hard to feel they are equals of the protagonist, or that we’re really in any kind of ongoing social context with them. Because there’s no need to remember directions, I didn’t build up a strong sense of relative space, of where things were in comparison with other things. I also found that the lack of local description unmoored me a little, because I’m so used to moving through rooms and LOOKing if I think I might have missed something. That’s probably just my IF-playing habit fighting against the new mechanisms, though.

Narratively, the surface story is fairly trivial — collect needed objects, solve a couple of puzzles, have minimal personal investment — while the backstory remains complex and largely mysterious. There are hints of significant past battles, of entities both evil and Faery, of generations of heroes trying to put things right, but only a few outlines of their struggle become clear in the course of the game.

The whole game, therefore, feels a bit gauzy and distant, reminiscent of Ebb and Flow of the Tide or The Guardian. There’s something intriguing and pleasurable about it, and I enjoyed seeing the experiment in IF world model, but it wasn’t a very intense or compelling experience. I am likely to remember Pacian’s other work longer.


Screen Shot 2013-04-10 at 12.33.51 PM The Pulse Pounding, Heart Stopping Game Jam was a weekend-long game jam for dating sims, producing over 80 works, many in Twine, about dating or relationship situations.

Among the entries (and obviously, with 80+, I didn’t get to try nearly all of them):

Porpentine’s “UNTIL OUR ALIEN HEARTS BEAT AS ONE” is a two-player Twine game about communicating through symbol and image.

Christine Love’s “Magical Maiden Madison” (shown) is an interactive texting conversation about a Magical Maiden’s evening adventures (which I know maybe just barely enough tropes to understand).

Mattie Brice’s “Blink” tells the story of dates that go wrong, over and over, in several different ways. If there’s a way to make things go right, I never found it. Possibly that’s the point. Possibly I’m just bad at these sorts of dates.

Joseph Miller’s “Dating Folksims” is a series of rules for live-action games to be played around the idea of dating faux pas and successes.

Mike Joffe’s “Benthic Love” explores the dating options of a young male anglerfish. It is surprisingly touching and also contains a surprising number of biology facts.

Elizabeth Sampat and Loren Hernandez’s “How to Be Happy” is a rather grim metaphorical puzzle game in which you can try to find other blocks to fit with your own, but are likely to fail, sooner or later, in keeping them with you.

Leon Arnott’s “Dining Table” is a creepy story about the dating lives of dolls. The end is, I think, a little overexplained, but the premise is genuinely disturbing; my main complaint is that I might have liked to see more of the story told interactively rather than through straight exposition.

Valentine’s “Greek Mythology PPHSJam game” is a Ren’Py piece that lets you cavort with various gods, though I’ve yet to find an outcome that was really positive for me. Hermes became my dating wingman, though, which has got to be worth something.

wattomatic’s “Life on Hold” is a Depression-Quest-like exploration of a relationship in a messed up holding pattern, where the more options you get, the less you seem to be able to change anything really important about the protagonist’s lifestyle.

Leigh Alexander has also written about the PPHSJAM here, with notes about some of the games that I didn’t cover myself.

Dominique Pamplemousse in “It’s All Over Once the Fat Lady Sings”

Pamplemousse at the mall

Dominique Pamplemousse in “It’s All Over Once the Fat Lady Sings” (IFDB page) is a new claymation musical adventure by Deirdra Kiai. It’s compact (1-2 hours, rather than 12+) and the puzzles are on the easy side. Some people might find these features to be drawbacks, but considering the limits on my gaming time these days, I appreciated getting my story delivered at a good clip. And it’s a pretty entertaining mystery, with enough twists for a noir short story; people aren’t exactly what they seem, a point that starts with the gender-ambiguous protagonist but eventually comes to apply to just about everyone you meet.

I was also fine with the fact that the puzzles mostly made sense and weren’t too maddening to work out. Many of them boil down to legwork — get a lead, figure out where to go next in order to pursue it — with just a handful of more complex or physical interactions, most pretty clearly clued.

A few slightly-more-spoilery thoughts follow the break.

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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.