Tools and Characters: March and April meetups

We now have two more meetups scheduled for the Oxford/London IF group:

2:15 PM, March 30, in Oxford: a session on IF tools. Graham Nelson will present his most recent changes to Inform 7, and Eric Eve will introduce his adv3lite library for TADS, and we’ll open to a general discussion of IF tools.

7 PM, April 8, in London: a session on character modeling, led by Nicholas FitzRoy-Dale. We’ll look at what has been done and what current mechanics support, and talk about possibilities for the future.

Twine in the Workplace

Horror: Colin Sandel’s Quit Your Job Simulator 2014 is a horror game about being trapped in your office while you wait for a compilation to work out. Like One Eye Open (of which Sandel was a co-author), it does some effective things with empty space and solitude and smells that aren’t quite right. If there’s a solvable puzzle here, though — anything that would have let me survive the evening, for instance — I totally failed to discover it.

Science Fiction: We Are The Firewall, Alan DeNiro. Firewall concerns a number of different characters, in a cyberpunkish future world dominated by Google-glass-like gadgets and online games that are disastrously hackable, many of whom work for a sinister Company.

Alan DeNiro is one of my favorite Twine authors on the basis of Solarium, which still gives me a shiver of Agh Creepy feeling whenever I think about it. He actually wrote We Are The Firewall first, but I missed hearing of it at the time. It’s challenging, structurally: there are a bunch of different storylines that diverge from the beginning, and the more of them you play, the more filled-in the epilogue text is; so that the game is like a bundle of strings knotted together at each end. As with Solarium, agency over the events of the story is minimal, and choices are mostly about the order in which you will see information. But it also just feels a bit less self-assured than Solarium. There are loads of Twine macros at work, doing a range of dizzying things like changing the text before your eyes or making bits disappear or causing the screen to shake. Sometimes that’s a useful effect, but sometimes a sentence I was reading blinked out before I made it to the end (and I’m a reasonably fast reader). The result is that Firewall kept me a bit anxious all the time, that I might not get it, that I might not be working hard and fast enough to get it, that I might have to replay things if I wasn’t very careful. The sense of frenetic anxiety is maybe appropriate considering that a lot of the story concerns things like human trafficking and drug smuggling and drone bombings. Nothing is stable in the world of the characters, either.

Comedy/Slice of Life: Ham and Egg Lawyer is a considerably more realistic piece: you’re a new lawyer, but not the kind in Suits or in any TV show featuring James Spader. You are missing some key information about how to get started on various cases, and all your would-be clients have no money or have really unsuitable problems (or both). The bulk of the choices are basically personality-quiz style options about whether you want to treat your clients ethically or try to make yourself some money, conceal your ignorance or admit to it, etc. As a game, it’s not entirely satisfying (I’d say) because there aren’t really any significant results to your actions: at the end you get a score representing how much money you earned, how stressed you are, and what’s happened to your reputation, but there’s no difference in the narrated outcomes. As a piece of interactive semi-non-fiction, though, it’s kind of fun. The various situations appear to be based on things that actually happened to the author, and they’re engagingly narrated. So it’s good to read, but it’s worth not going into it expecting a detailed simulation game, because this is not that.

The Southern Reach and Transmedia

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The Southern Reach is a project partly by Alex Warren (creator of Quest), working with HarperCollins to promote Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, part one of a trilogy. The premise appears to be that there’s a sinister area (Area X) into which a number of expeditions have gone — and perhaps not returned. There are hints that something has gone wrong there biologically, and that some of those who go in experience hallucinations or perceptual distortions.

The game segment is fairly brief: it frames itself as a “training” experience, in which you’re taught to recognize lies, wear gloves before handling fungus, and calm the fears of your associates. “Training” is a trope I’ve seen several times in tie-in works (see also British Intelligence Officer Exam, which is a considerably deeper and longer story), presumably because it provides an obvious context in which the rules of the universe are presented to the player, but sandboxed in such a way that the player cannot affect the actual plot of the major work being advertised.

The game story in Southern Reach feels a little bit unsatisfying all by itself, because it’s not really trying to answer any of the mysteries it raises — it’s perhaps up to the book to do that. There are a number of audio and visual elements, but the main body of the exploration is a straightforward choice-based game with textual descriptions, and it feels very classic IF-ish in the way that it describes new locations and moves you around on a map.

Which leads me to a point about the Transmedia concept that has been bothering me for some time. I’ve been several times to the website of a forthcoming tool called Conducttr which is designed to allow people more easily to build big transmedia projects that tie into multiple websites and social networks and so on. On the one hand, I’m basically allergic to anything that is trying to make me interact with it via email, Twitter or Facebook — staying connected to other real people in real life is a time-consuming but important task, and I don’t want those channels garbaged up (as I see it) by either incoming or outgoing messages to bots and games. On the other hand, I’m interested in Conducttr anyway in the same way that I’m generally interested in any new tool that offers a previously unexplored way of telling people a story. In any case, on Conducttr’s website is this image:

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I understand what the picture is trying to communicate. But what I see when I look at this is: the Transmedia Concept means that the contributing movie, game, and book are all individually misshapen, dissatisfying lumps. Is this actually better? Both as author and as player, I think I’d like the individual elements to be good in themselves, as well as (possibly) a cool participation in a whole; and if I have to choose whether they should be good in themselves or good only in concert, I think I would actually prefer that they each be individually high-quality experiences — because the set of people likely to encounter only one is higher than the set likely to encounter all three, and because someone who has a not-totally-compelling experience with a part of a transmedia entity is thereby the less likely to look for the others (I would assume).

I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say the Southern Reach game is a misshapen lump. If this were a standalone IF game, I would at the very least be saying, “hey, look, here’s an interesting IF UI that you haven’t exactly seen before.” But it’s definitely unfinished and dependent — and at the same time, it didn’t tell me enough about its world, or get me to care so deeply about its characters, to get me to buy the book. Other people’s mileage may vary, though.