Latest Discussion Transcript

I’ve now posted last night’s transcript from the IF Discussion Club, this time on interactive nonfiction. It was a sparser session than some have been (people are busy on sunny summer afternoons!), but touched on a few different problems, including the question of how much “nonfiction” can be applied to anything interactive.

The proposed topic for next time, July 12, is testing. For perhaps obvious reasons, this doesn’t come with a reading list of games, but we’ll be interested to talk about testing methodologies and the various challenges that come with different forms of IF.

That said, if you want something provocative to read on the topic, may I recommend Mattie Brice on the Death of the Player?

Play- and player-centric design are usually interchangeable terms, but I’d like to make a stronger distinction between them. My main quibble with player-centric design is the fetishized iterative process, where you take a prototype and get players to playtest it. Sometimes, this is useful; if it’s very important to you that someone feels a certain way or does a certain thing, playtesting is a method to achieve that. When I made Mainichi, I released it without any playtesting and iteration. Because players have a tendency to want agency and a positive trajectory, their input would have been useless to me. As well, the game was made for a friend to understand something. I couldn’t playtest the game with them and then ‘release’ it after. It would be like asking your crush to read and edit the love note you want to pass to them one day. With games that use personal experience as a main part of their design, player input through playtesting washes out their voice. If your game leaves out traditional qualities and emphasizes voice, then player-centric design is a useless paradigm for you.

So perhaps it’s also worth talking about what testing does to a game — squeezes, squishes, alters, in ways that might be good or bad.

Blood & Laurels now in the App Store

Emily Short:

As promised: Blood & Laurels is now live in the App Store.

Originally posted on Versu:

Cults. Conspiracies. Poison. Stabbing. Blackmail. Seduction. Prophecies and rumors. Divine wrath — or possibly just bad weather.

Our new Versu game, Blood & Laurels, is now live in the App Store for iPad.

With more than 10 times as much authored text as you are likely to see in a single playthrough, Blood & Laurels adapts strongly to what you choose to do, and what you choose to explore. Scheme, romance, murder, or choose your own ideals and stick to them. It’s up to you.

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News about Versu and Blood & Laurels

Emily Short:

An announcement from the relaunched versu.com site:

Originally posted on Versu:

Until February of this year, the Versu project had its home at Linden Lab, exploring the possibilities of interactive storytelling with advanced character AI by Richard Evans (Sims 3, Black and White) and dialogue modeling by Emily Short (Galatea, Alabaster), as well as work by authors Jake Forbes (Return to Labyrinth) and Deirdra Kiai (Dominique Pamplemousse).

Regency-era comedy of manners and a modern office comedy stories, released for Versu, had received significant attention in various forms, including an appearance at GDC’s Experimental Gameplay Workshop, an award for best AI in an independent game in 2013, and coverage at Edge Online and New Scientist.

When the Lab decided to refocus its offerings and cut support for Versu, the project was only three days from launching a Roman political thriller called Blood & Laurels. Blood & Laurels represented a significant step forward in complexity and depth from previous Versu…

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ShuffleComp Conclusions, and a couple more reviews

The ShuffleComp results are in, with the top third of the games earning “commended” status.

I didn’t get to play all of the works during the competition period itself. There were 33 games, as many as in a typical IF Comp, with a shorter play window, and while some of the games were little five-minute pieces, many of them were surprisingly involved.

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Call for Papers: ICIDS 2014

From the call for papers from ICIDS 2014, held in Singapore in November this year:

The International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling (ICIDS) is the premier venue for researchers, practitioners and theorists to present recent results, share novel techniques and insights, and exchange ideas about this new storytelling medium…

The ICIDS conference series has a long-standing tradition of bringing together theoretical and practical approaches in an interdisciplinary dialogue. We encourage contributions from a range of fields related to interactive storytelling, including computer science, human-computer interaction, game design, media production, semiotics, game studies, narratology, media studies, digital humanities and interactive arts criticism.

ICIDS would welcome papers on many topics of interest to readers of this blog, including digital storytelling authoring tools, interactive narratives in digital games, interactive narratives used in education, close critical studies of interactive stories, and post-mortems of completed projects.

The submission deadline is June 16.

I will be participating in this conference as a keynote speaker.

ShuffleComp: Truth, Sparkle, Invisible Parties

A few more items from ShuffleComp:

Truth is a goofy, very mildly satirical puzzle game, with one (fairly easy) main puzzle and some additional challenges that you can collect to increase your score.

It belongs to a category I think of as “stick figure IF”: the implementation is clean and I noticed no obvious bugs, but there are very few objects per room and very little you can do with each object. This kind of thing feels less immersive and takes less work to put together than IF with deeper environments, but it can still communicate effectively in an iconic way, and I wouldn’t say it’s badly crafted — it’s just aiming at something different from other, more lushly implemented works.

Truth also sticks closer than most of these games to the lyrics and concept of the original song.

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Sparkle has an odd little item-transformation mechanic. I am somewhat partial to item-transformation mechanics, I confess. In Sparkle, the deal is that, with meditation and deep study, each thing can be turned into one other, utterly unrelated thing. Learning which transformations are possible constitutes a strong hint about what you’ll need to do to solve the various puzzles.

There were a handful of these puzzles, especially one about the deployment of the dog, that I found difficult to guess and a bit dark (is there any way to rescue the pet after he’s been used that way? I couldn’t see one). But for the most part they seemed fair, and the game went out of its way to give achievements for some of the more interesting deployments.

I’ve seen other reviews suggesting that some players felt the ending was annoying. I quite liked it: it acknowledged how goofy all the object transformations had been, and suggested a transcendent explanation for the whole thing.

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Invisible Parties is about a being who walks between worlds, who has been brought to a “tangle”, a place where parts of many worlds are accessible at once, from the hot brilliance of Africa to the rich green of an idealized English summer to the banality of a hotel meeting space. These are more than locations. They are also moods, cultures, world-views, ways of thinking, each familiar and distinct, each subject to its own form of apocalyptic destruction. But the tangle is also a sort of trap, and the player must destabilize it enough to get away, and, ideally, rescue their lover Jave. The game never stops to explain to the player in so many words how the world works, so you have to learn as you go along. The effect reminded me of some of Diana Wynne Jones’s stuff, in a good way.

Both the protagonist and Jave have an assortment of gifts, abilities that can be used in surprising circumstances, and it’s possible to trigger Jave’s gifts as well as one’s own. Jave’s gifts are very different from the protagonist’s, and this is an excellent mechanic for a) making the protagonist appreciate Jave (she’s extremely useful) and b) rapidly sketching her character, even in a context where it’s impossible to hold a conversation with her.

In its current form, Invisible Parties is kind of broken. There are NPCs you can talk to who won’t necessarily respond at all, there are under-clued bits, there are things that look like they’re going to be puzzles but then seem like there wasn’t time to finish implementing them. There are gifts that don’t ever get deployed. The first time I played, I got totally stuck, and it took another run through from the beginning, mapping on paper, for me to complete the game. (I almost never have to map on paper! But in IP the layout of rooms is subtly changing, and it’s hard to track even if you have a decent mind for IF layouts.) Anyway, it’s not currently putting its best foot forward.

Even despite those issues, though, Invisible Parties is my favorite ShuffleComp game so far, because it also has so very much going for it. It’s well-written, vivid, quite pleasing when the puzzle solutions do work, and primarily about people and mindsets rather than things and physical mechanics. There is a masterful ending where it’s possible to save yourself by leaving Jave behind. The text for this acknowledges that the protagonist will move forward, is too mature and sensible for Romeo-and-Juliet posings, but nonetheless recognizes the painful impact of the loss. The happier ending, where the player and Jave manage to leave together, is also rather satisfyingly constructed.

I really hope that the author will give this another pass, because I think with polish it could be a strong XYZZY contender come next awards cycle.